Empirical: A Great British Band

The excellent gig that Empirical played at the CBSO Centre on June 1st reminded me that the quartet is one of the most original and distinctive jazz groups playing in UK.  There is something special about their music.

The sound of the band based on the textures created by the combination of the alto saxophone of Nathaniel Facey with the vibraphone of Lewis Wright generates an immediate warmth and accessibility.  The support from Tom Farmer on double bass and Shane Forbes on drums adds a rhythmic drive that augments the approachability of their music.  The repertoire consists of some quite complex material and the tunes often have long intricate and angular lines, but the music always comes across with imagination and a lightness of touch that makes it very appealing .Empirical+Finals+High+Res+Emile+Holba+1

Empirical has a great respect for the tradition of American jazz and they have undertaken projects that pay homage to great players such as Eric Dolphy and Bobby Hutcherson.  One of the most interesting characteristics of Empirical’s approach is that it is rooted in the early avant-garde of the mid to late 1960s.  Clearly the music of John Coltrane and that of Ornette Coleman are powerful influences, but I also hear echoes of the fascinating music that Blue Note was putting out in the late 60s, music by Jackie Maclean in his more adventurous period, music by Sam Rivers and the second great Miles Davis Quintet with Wayne Shorter on tenor and soprano saxophones.  Empirical’s music has a similar intensity and spirituality to that of these pioneers of the early avant-garde and, moreover, they are creating their own individual interpretation of a style we rarely hear today.

For all their respect for the American tradition and for the pioneers of the avant-garde, I still feel that there is something very British about their music.  All the material is written by members of the band and they take it in turns to announce the tunes in their concerts.  Their presentation is excellent, the announcements are clear and friendly and the band looks smart on stage.  While it is clear that there is nothing intrinsically British about these features of their live performance, this concern for the audience and desire to build new followers is something that I believe is very characteristic of the British scene.  One audience building approach of theirs has been the setting up of pop up sessions where the group sets up in a public space for a number of days and plays at different times of the day when they will attract people on the way to or from work, or on a lunch break.  These have been at Old Street Tube Station, and in shopping arcades in Birmingham, Cheltenham and Berlin.

This June they are one of the UK bands playing the Rochester Jazz festival as part of the Made in UK project, and I feel that they are excellent representatives of British jazz.  They will playing material from their latest recordings; two Eps on their own label entitled Indifference Culture and Distraction Tactics.

Empirical play two shows in the Rochester Jazz Festival on Saturday 22nd June, at 6.45 and 8.45 in Christ Church Rochester.


Three Top Gigs Coming Up in June

June can be a quiet month for jazz in the city as people look for outdoor activities, dig their gardens or allotments, or go off to music festivals.  But this June sees three gigs that I am really looking forward to.

MAISHA        Hare & Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham Tuesday 11th June Doors at 7.30

Maisha are touring in support of their first album There Is A Place on the Brownswood label.  It’s a six piece band led by drummer Jake Long and featuring Nubya Garcia on saxophone and Shirley Tetteh on guitar.  The band is very much of the new London scene; they are supported by Gilles Peterson and draw on various styles of music, notably Afro-beat.  On the evidence of their debut album, there is, however, something distinctive about their music.  I hear something of the spirituality of Coltrane’s peak period, and also an energy and freedom that reminds me of Sun Ra’s music.

maishaThis should work very well in the vibe of the Hare & Hounds.  Have a listen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AEhzTcI9CFY.  You can book here.  This is a co-promotion between Jazzlines and Leftfoot.

RACHEL MUSSON ENSEMBLE   Café Oto Dalston London   Wednesday 19th June Doors at 7.30

Rachel 1I have heard this extended work four times, once in rehearsal and then in its two performances at mac Birmingham as part of the Surge in Spring Festival last year and this year at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival, and, most recently, in the broadcast of the Cheltenham concert on Jazz Now, still available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m00057hr.

I’m really looking forward to hearing it again! I enjoy so many aspects of it: Rachel’s use of spoken word and the integration of the writing for the ensemble with the words, the strong solos from members of the ensemble especially Hannah Marshall on cello and the two saxophonists, Lee Griffiths and Xhosa Cole, and Mark Sanders’ strongly supportive drumming.

You can book here.

NIKKI ILES and the PRINTMAKERS  Eastside Jazz Club, Birmingham Conservatoire  Thursday 20th June  Support band at 6.30, main act: two sets from 7.45.

nikkiThe Printmakers features some of the top UK jazz performers: Norma Winstone on vocals, Mark Lockheart on saxophones, Mike Walker on guitar and Steve Watts on bass, but this is definitely Nikki Iles’ band.  The material is hers, the choice of musicians is hers, and the overall sound of the band reflects her warm and open personality.  It is a band with a lot of character that should work particularly well in the intimate surroundings of the Eastside Jazz Club at the Conservatoire.  The support set will feature a band led by saxophonist James Romaine, a fine player about to enter his final year on the jazz course.

You can read more about The Printmakers at http://nikkiiles.co.uk/the-printmakers/ and book for the gig here.   This is a co-promotion between Jazzlines and the Jazz Department at the Conservatoire.

The Druga Godba Festival in Slovenia

druga godbaDruga Godba apparently means ‘that other music’, and it is an excellent title for the festival that takes place in Slovenia at the end of May, mostly in Ljubljana, but also for one day in Maribor, Slovenia’s second largest city.  The title reflects the diversity of the festival that has a focus on musics from Africa and different parts of Europe, but also takes in jazz and experimental improvised and electronic music.  It’s an impressive mix that one does not often find in one festival.

AJ Dehany will, I believe, be writing a full review of the festival for London Jazz News and also a report on the Jazz Connective conference that ran in parallel with the festival.  Here I want to share a few reflections on the range of music presented.

The electronic programme consisted of a fascinating solo set by Ar Ker (Seb Brun) that combined elements of noise with the electronics and then the more abstract but equally fascinating improvisations of the Irish sound scapist Shane Latimer.  Interestingly, it seemed nicely apt that the former took place in the grungy but atmospheric setting of the Channel Zero Club, whereas the latter took place in the much more formal setting of the main Ljubljana concert hall, Cankarjev Dom.  Also in Cankarjev Dom was the vocal improvisation by Irena Tomazin Zagoricnik with the title iT: Another Crying Game that featured Irena’s beautiful voice and her rather odd interactions with recordings on cassette tape.  The three improvisers had participated in a residency linked to the festival and presented a short sharing on the penultimate day of the festival.

There was a link between this electronic programme and the contemporary jazz part of the programme through Jimi Tenor’s collaboration with the Finnish trio, Mopo, which also took place in the Channel Zero clubJimi Tenor had spoken in a pre-concert talk of his involvement with Aphex Twin and the electro label Warp, and also of his creation of melodies on his various electronic devices.  But his leaning towards punk jazz fitted well with the Mopo trio and there was some excellent interaction between Jimi Tenor on saxophone and Mopo’s saxophonist Linda Frederiksson.  This was, however, the first time that the trio had collaborated live with their fellow Finn, and, despite some highly energetic passages, it felt as though they were all holding back somewhat, and paying just a little too much respect for each other.

The rest of the jazz programme was dominated by a strong British presence with three bands, Dinosaur, Ill Considered and Kokoroko, all representative of different aspects of the UK scene and all demonstrating the vibrancy of the overall scene.  Kokoroko are clearly part of the new young London scene with key players such as trumpeter Sheila Maurice Grey and saxophonist Cassie Kinoshi whereas Dinosaur are a more established band that has been touring UK and Europe for some years, and was nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2017.  Ill Considered fit between the two with the relatively well known Idris Rahman leading with his ‘spiritual’ saxophone solos, but clearly aiming for the young jazz audience with its use of a strong groove base from the rhythm section.

The contemporary jazz programme also featured the top Polish group, Maciec Obara Quartet led by Obara on alto saxophone.  They played a nicely balanced set with good solos with pianist Dominik Wania particularly impressive.


The programme of international music from South Africa, Brazil and various European scenes also presented a wide range of music that stimulated a number of reactions.   DakhaBrakha, a quartet from The Ukraine, tended towards the exotic in appearance with their colourful outfits and Cossack hats and came across as a party band, but their musicality and willingness to experiment meant that their set avoided the dangers of excessive musical partying.  The South African BCUC (Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness)  on the final night in Maribor also created a party atmosphere, but their retention of a spontaneity arising from their jam session beginnings meant that their tunes often went off in interestingly different directions and lasted quite some time.  The call and response between leading vocalist Jovi and backing vocalist Hloni worked well and added a distinctive element to their music. They received an amazing response from the audience with half the audience dancing immediately in front of the band.  Also from South Africa were The Brother Moves On from the Soweto township.  Their music captured the charm and energy of the best of township music but with added depth provided by Slovenian pianist Bowrain with whom they had also collaborated in last year’s festival.

Less interesting was the collaboration between guitarist Yonatan Gat and two native American percussionists, Strong Bear and Red Medicine whose playing on a large percussion instrument never seemed to vary.

I also enjoyed a beautiful ambient set by the Estonian duo Maarja Nuut & Ruum and the songs of the Polish folk trio Sutari.

Two aspects of the Druga Godba really impressed: the variety of the music and its range going from abstract electronic improvisations to bands that got the audience up on their feet and dancing.  This variety is matched by the differences in the venues that ranged from grungy clubs to elegant concert halls.

I am grateful to Ollie Weindling of The Vortex for various conversations during the festival that informed these comments.

‘We Make It All Up’: Waldo’s Gift

I was surprised that the Waldo’s Gift trio playing in support of the Ishmael Ensemble at the Hare and Hounds earlier this week announced that in their set they ‘would be making it all up’.  They did refer to improvisation and improvised music at their end of their short, but I found interesting that they used the former description with its possible negative connotations at the beginning of the set.  The audience was made up of the new young audience that is attracted by the new wave of jazz coming out of London and in this case Bristol, so perhaps the term ‘improvised music’ is seen as unfamiliar and possibly off-putting.

Waldo's gift
Waldo’s Gift

I enjoyed the set and bought the Cd.  I found it particularly interesting that the set was clearly improvised, but was using the language of the varied music that is coming out of Bristol of which the Ishmael Ensemble, the main act that night, is typical.  The music uses electronics, is ambient and has a strong groove.  It is a different language from that of improvisers such as Evan Parker, Paul Dunmall et al.  The trio has clear routines or ‘habits’ as their drummer James Vine, described them to me, and they move into different routines as a result of musical signals.  In that sense they remind of the approach of the Pablo Held Trio from Germany who do not plan their set in advance, but move from one composition to another as a result of the spontaneous initiative of one or other of the trio.  Of course, the actual music of the two trios is completely different.

As I say, I enjoyed their Birmingham set.  It perhaps could have done with more variety and more drama, but there was a spontaneity about it that I liked.  James Vine mentioned in a short chat that their set on the previous night had been completely different.  Certainly the music of their Cd, entitled simply Improvisations, although in the same musical territory, does go in different directions.

Waldo’s Gift is Alan Elliott Williams, guitar, Harry Stoneham, electric bass, and James Vine drums.  I was intrigued by the latter’s playing on drums, which made a major contribution to the musical mix.  It did not draw on jazz or hip hop drumming; James mentioned to me in our post-gig chat that his main influence comes from electronic producers.

Their Cd is on Astral Tusk and their Facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/waldosgift/    On the CD the music does stretch out much more than they were able to do in a 30 min set.

Steve Williamson Plays the CBSO Centre on Saturday 18th May with His Latest Project String Ting

The legendary saxophonist and composer Steve Williamson plays the CBSO Centre this Saturday, 18th May, with his latest project, Stringting, details here.  Mike Hobart’s review in the Financial Times of the London concert had this to say:

Williamson’s compositions, like his playing, fuse chunks of jazz history with a depth and detail that few match. Here they were brought confidently to life by a sparse double bass and drum rhythm section — both of college student age — and the equally youthful string quartet StringTing. Williamson was the featured soloist throughout, prowling the stage while warm angular lines, chromatic turns and the occasional blues-laced lick tumbled out of his tenor sax.

steve williamsonSteve Williamson has been hailed as “one of the most distinctive saxophone voices in contemporary British jazz”. He began playing the saxophone at just 16 and played in reggae bands such as Misty in Roots before studying at London’s Guildhall School of Music in 1984.

In 1990, Williamson released his first album A Waltz for Grace followed by the release of Rhyme Time just two years later and his third album Journey To Truth, released in 1994.  At that time Steve was close to Steve Coleman, the instigator of the M-Base movement and Steve’s albums brought together elements of funk, hip hop as well as jazz.  His own playing continued to display the inventiveness and unique sound that were a feature of his playing with The Jazz Warriors, formed in the mid-1980s.

In the 1990s Steve hooked up with Art Blakey and became an ‘honorary’ member of Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. He did a week with the band and even interviewed him for Channel 4. In the same period Steve also toured in the USA with Donald Byrd and his Jazzamatazz band, and did guest spots with Gil Scott-Heron and Ali Farka Toure.

In a recent interview in Jazzwise (May 2019) Steve talks of his admiration for Blakey’s ability to mentor young players. The Jazz Messengers had begun in the 1950s and continued until Blakey’s death in 1990, and throughout those years Blakey mentored great players such as Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan and the Marsalis brothers

In his latest project Steve will be working with two young players who have graduated from the Tomorrow’s Warriors, the 18-year old drummer Zoe Pascal and bass player Hamish Moore, as well as a classical string quartet.

Steve sees the members of the string quartet as four individuals rather than as one unit and talks of how they influence the lines he plays and how he will ‘slightly change or reshape melodies as he sees how they approach things’.  Steve also talks of how his writing for the group is influenced by his fascination for the cyclical nature of water and its flow.

Town Hall Symphony Hall’s Jazzlines programme has had the pleasure of presenting Steve Williamson twice, once in the 90s and later in the early 2000s in a group that also featured Gary Crosby on bass.

Christian Lillinger’s Open Form for Society: A Review

IMG_20190429_172705_resized_20190429_052834150I believe that this is a truly original and important album.  It is a project that drummer composer Christian Lillinger has worked on for two years and recorded over a five day period with a group of nine musicians (listed below).  The instrumentation is important as in a sense we have a different type of group with the focus on percussive instruments, that is two pianos, one upright and one grand, and a third person doubling piano and synthesizer, then vibes and one person also playing vibes plus marimbaphone and glockenspiel, then cello and two double basses, one doubling electric bass and finally drums.

On the CD there are 18 tracks, 13 composed and 5 improvised.  The composed tracks are all quite short ranging in length from 1.30 to 7.04 mins.  Each one of these was developed organically with contributions from the musicians, and a lot of playing and reworking in the studio.  There was also a considerable amount of post-production adding effects and lo-fi elements, so that the end product on the album sounds and, in fact, is quite structured.

The first two tracks set the mood.   The first piece is for the two pianos, with the sound modified by a ring modulator with the result that there is an occasional feel of a film score.  The piece develops through very disciplined interactions between the two pianos.  Lillinger does not play on this track and it is a feature of the album that he steps down for a number of the tracks.christian lillinger

Track two, Aorta, initially features drums, piano, cello and vibes and moves into a passage with synths, bass and drums before returning to the first configuration.  Each player makes short sharp contributions and these are driven by the drums patterns that draw on hip hop and drum ‘n bass rhythms.  These punchy, jerky, but constantly shifting rhythms add an urgency and drive to the piece.  A tremendous amount happens throughout the piece and my personal reaction is that I find it very exciting.

This is the pattern throughout the 13 composed pieces, short pieces without solos in the jazz sense, but containing short interactive contributions from different formations usually driven by the drums.   Not everyone plays on every track and, as noted above, Lillinger is not featured on certain tracks.  One track 11, Sog, seems quite different from the others in that it makes extensive of electronic sounds many of which I imagine were added in the post-production process.

Overall, this is ‘new music’ rather than jazz, but with its use of drums and other percussive instruments, such as the vibes and the marimba, on most tracks the music has a dynamic range that most new music does not have.  This plus the rhythmic nature of the compositions make the music on the album an exciting blend of the qualities of new music and contemporary jazz.

The final five tracks are quite different in that they are freely improvised.  They are simply titled, One to Five.  Again these are quite short varying in length from 1.32 to 6.48 mins with three lasting around four minutes.  They follow established free jazz practice with a lot of interaction, and listening and reacting to the flow of the music.  There is a little bit of post-production in the rather abrupt cutting of the first and fifth tracks.

There are no sleeve notes, but the Cd has been sent out with a very helpful set of notes.  In this it is mentioned the album’s title Open form for Society is taken from the work of philosopher Karl Popper in his Open Society work which advocates a trust in ‘people’s critical thinking abilities’.  The album puts this principle into practice through the organic development of the pieces in the studio by the members of the group.

Line Up

Christian Lillinger, composition and drums; Antonis Anissegos, grand piano; Kaja Draksler, upright piano; Elias Stemeseder, synthesizer and piano; Christopher Dell, vibraphone; Roland Neffe, marimbaphone, vibraphone and glockenspiel; Lucy Railton, cello; Petter Eldh, double and electric bass; Robert Landfermann, double bass.

The album is on Lillinger’s own label, Plaist Music.

I am grateful to Mark Sanders for a conversation about the album that informed this review.

Some Reflections on This Year’s Cheltenham Jazz Festival

As Programme Adviser to the Cheltenham Jazz Festival working with Emily Jones, Head of Programming  at Cheltenham, particularly on the programme in the Parabola Arts Centre, it would be unprofessional for me to be writing a review.  Nor do I want to be naming particular highlights as this is unfair on those I have to miss out.  There are excellent reviews on the Guardian, Telegraph, Financial Times and Jazzwise sites, so I will put links to them at the end of this post.  There is also extensive coverage of various gigs on the London Jazz News website (www.londonjazznews.com) and on the Jazzmann site (www.thejazzmann.com).

The thing I increasingly notice in jazz today is how the mainstream is becoming less mainstream and how the various genres and sub-genres are becoming increasingly blurred.  There is a tendency to state that the adventurous part of the programme takes place at the Parabola Arts Centre (PAC), and that the more ‘core’ jazz programme takes place in larger venues, The Jazz Arena and the Town Hall.  But that is too simple a way of seeing the programme.  The Bad Plus playing in The Arena played a set as adventurous as anything in PAC, likewise Rymden, Yazz Ahmed’s Polyhymnia and Omar Sosa playing with Yilian Cañizares and Gustavo Ovalles.  Of course all in different ways.  Then Joshua Redman playing the Town Hall with the challenging line up of saxophone, bass and drums played a set that would have been seen as very ‘out there’  a few years ago.

the Bad Plus
The Bad Plus

Then, on the other hand, acts in the PAC such as Hanna Paulsberg’s delightful, almost acoustic set and Marc Copland’s beautiful solo piano set drew heavily on the jazz tradition.

There is another interesting issue: Rachel Musson’s extended suite for a 9-piece ensemble with strings as well as the more traditional jazz instruments would fit very easily into a new music festival. Moreover, the final set with the French trio featuring Quentin Biardeau, Valentin Ceccaldi and Sylvain Darrifourcq could well be included in either an experimental rock festival or a new music festival.

There is so much happening in jazz today, and also in contemporary music and experimental rock;  the Cheltenham Jazz Festival can justifiably claim to be reflecting that variety.

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