Two Saxophonists: Lou Gare and Tony Malaby

I have had the pleasure of rediscovering two great saxophonists in the last week or so.  One, Lou Gare, recently passed away, while the other, Tony Malaby, is very much alive and seemingly at a peak of creativity at the moment.  I find certain parallels between the playing of these two.

I have been listening to the collection of solos by Lou Gare recorded in live situations with Mike Westbrook’s The Uncommon Orchestra released on Westbrook Records.  These are mostly extracts featuring Gare on tenor saxophone from performances in theatres, arts centres and pubs in the South West, some solo, some with a small rhythm section and two extended performances with the full orchestra of D.T.T.M, a suite dedicated to the memory of trombonist Danilo Terenzi and drummer Tony Marsh.

lou gare
Lou Gare

I discovered this recording as a result of reading a very perceptive review of the album on Richard Williams’ The Blue Moment website, which you can access here.  I very much agree with Williams’ point that Gare’s playing combines ‘a fundamentally modern mainstream approach with freshness and substance’.  Gare’s tone on the tenor saxophone derives from the Coleman Hawkins Ben Webster school, and has all the warmth and depth of that style.  He also has something of the laid back character of Lester Young, and he shows an ability to create long flowing solos full of ideas and creativity in which he never seems to repeat himself.  Gare was a founder member of the improvising group AMM and is known as an improvising saxophonist.  I imagine that the solos in this collection are largely improvised freely, but, by using the language and tone of the modern mainstream, Gare creates something truly original.  Particularly impressive is the short track Propositions where, as explained in the sleeve notes, Gare spontaneously develops a beautifully logical solo backed by bass and drums when Westbrook  asks him on the spot to introduce the next set.  Equally impressive are the solos in the context of the large ensemble on the D.T.T.M and D.T.T.M. 2 tracks where Gare’s warm but understated playing makes a nice contrast with the ensemble writing.

tony malaby
Tony Malaby

I had heard Tony Malaby a number of years ago in Mark Helias’ Open Loose group, but not since.  So it was good to be able to present him in one of my own promotions in the lovely Hexagon Theatre at mac (Midlands Arts Centre) in Birmingham.  The Hexagon is small intimate venue with an excellent acoustic for free playing, and it seemed to bring out the best in the cooperative trio in which Malaby was playing with two excellent French players:  guitarist Richard Bonnet and drummer Sylvain Darrifourcq.  The trio began with a short free improvisation and then moved into a series of tunes penned by either Malaby or Bonnet where the playing wove in and out of the compositions and free improvisation; the encore was a short free improvisation.  The band had played the three previous nights in Newcastle, London, Strasbourg (!) before coming to Birmingham and played a very integrated and tight performance.  Malaby also has a tone on tenor saxophone that ultimately derives from the original school of Hawkins and Webster.  It is a fuller sound that takes in elements of John Coltrane’s and Sonny Rollins’ approaches, and he is concerned to keep a natural sound on both the tenor and the soprano saxophones.  His solos, as with Gare’s, have a fluency and an impressive logical development.  In an interview which you can read here, Malaby talks of wanting to write compositions that sound as though they were spontaneously created and making improvisations sound ‘structured and organized’.  All these characteristics were to the fore in the Birmingham concert.  Bonnet and Darrifourcq share the same philosophy and had clearly developed a strong rapport with Malaby.


Trondheim JazzFest

Last week I attended the JazzFest in Trondheim; it’s another very enjoyable European jazz festival in the beautiful city of Trondheim, which is situated on the fjords towards the north of Norway but some way below the Artic Circle.   My main reason for being there was to look after the Birmingham students who were on the third leg of the annual Birmingham Trondheim Exchange.

This project involves the formation of three groups, usually quartets with two students each from the jazz courses in Birmingham and Trondheim.  This year one of the groups was a quintet.  The Norwegian students travel to Birmingham, and the groups meet and rehearse before playing two gigs in Birmingham and then travelling down to Cheltenham to play in the Cheltenham Jazz Festival.  Following this the Birmingham students travel to Trondheim for the JazzFest there, which this year conveniently started the day after the end of Cheltenham.  They rejoin their Trondheim colleagues and develop a slightly longer set that is performed in one of the festival’s main venues.

The project has been going for nine years and it is a tribute to the skills and flexibility of the students that they can get together a short 25/30min set in just a couple of days.  The gig in Cheltenham has become one of the highlights of the programme in the Parabola Arts Centre, the venue that focusses on the new and experimental, and is always well attended.  It is also fascinating to observe the coming together of two different approaches to the music from the Trondheim and Birmingham students.  This year there seemed to be a very pleasing unity in the groups and the music created was some of the best the Exchange has produced.  Peter Slavid in his review of the Parabola programme commented that  ‘I thought that this year the groups were well balanced and very creative’.  His full review of the Parabola programme is here.  Ian Mann also wrote a lengthy review, which you can read here.

It is invidious to name particular players, but I have to say that I was very impressed with the quintet that had an excellent drive generated by drummer Elias Tafjord and some impressive soloing by trumpeter Christos Stylianides and guitarist Magnus Skaug.  In another group I enjoyed Vilde Aarke Lie’s vocals ably supported by some tasteful solos by saxophonist Harry Weir and pianist Havard Aufles.  The group with Ask Rasmussen, sax, Aidan Pope, guitar, Georgia Wartel Collins, bass and Charlie Johnson was the most integrated.

Guru S. MoE

Elsewhere in the festival I really enjoyed the set with the Trondheim Jazzorkestra playing with Chick Corea and performing arrangements of certain of his tunes.  The Swedish Norwegian group Atomic played a powerful set showing how free playing can be integrated with compositions.  Improvising saxophonist Mette Rasmussen played with the Norwegian noise group MoE in a very loud set in a very small room.  It was fascinating to observe how Mette gradually managed to integrate her improvisations into the full on blasts of the MoE group.  Zenos Mode is a student group from Trondheim with very impressive rap vocals from Malin Odegard. 

Another very promising young group was Relling that combined high energy vocals with a strong playing from a trio with Hammond Organ, guitar and drums.

Thoughts on the Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2018

Eight quick thoughts the day after Cheltenham Jazz Festival:

  1. There is now an amazing variety associated with the word jazz.  The strength of a festival like Cheltenham Jazz Festival is that it can and does bring together all kinds of styles and breaks down barriers
  2. I was very happy with the programme that Emily Jones and I put together for the Parabola Arts Centre.  I also caught parts of very enjoyable sets in the Town Hall by Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan, Jason Moran’s Bandwaggon Trio and Andy Sheppard’s Quartet.
  3. I really enjoyed what I heard of Van Morrison’s set; he seems to be rediscovering his jazz roots. I could only catch about 40 mins of the set, and I’m really disappointed that I missed his rendition of a couple of tunes from the Astral Weeks album.
  4. lucia
    Lucia Cadotsch

    The festival featured five amazing vocalists: Lucia Cadotsch, Kadri Voorand, Elaine Mitchener, Jazzmeia Horn and Cherise Adams-Burnett.

  5. It was noticeable how many bands were successfully integrating electronics into their music, notably the Trondheim Birmingham groups, Dinosaur, Jim Black’s Malamute, Roller Trio and Evan Parker’s Trance Map+
  6. Roller Trio are back with a stronger line up, i.e. Chris Sharkey on electronics and bass guitar
  7. Two bands, however, prefer a more acoustic approach: Empirical and Vein. Empirical performed several 30 min pop up sets a day in a shop in The Courtyard Centre from Thursday to Sunday and then played a beautifully poised set in the Jazz Arena on the Monday.  Vein rounded off the Parabola programme in a finely judged set with Stan Sulzmann as guest.

  8. Arun Ghosh brought a totally different vibe to the Parabola with a captivating, full-on Indojazz set

A Visit to Katowice Prison

On the final night of the JazzArt Festival in Katowice in the south of Poland, the director Martyna Markowska announced, rather to my surprise, that we were to visit the prison the following day. This was to witness a performance by Wildbirds and Peacedrums (vocalist Mariam Wallentin and drummer Andreas Werliin) for the female inmates.

wildbirds and peacedrums
Mariam Wallentin of Wildbirds and Peacedrums

It was a fascinating experience.  On arrival at the prison we had to hand in passports, mobile phones and any other electronic devices we had.  We were then escorted through a complicated series of passages and doors to what I assumed to be the women’s ward.  The building is a classic red brick building from the early 20th century and the room which we eventually reached and in which the performance took place was a narrow corridor with a balcony and cells on both sides.

We sat waiting for the performance while the duo was setting up and sound checking, wondering with some anticipation when the inmates would appear.   We then went on a short tour of the prison and returned to find 27 women sitting in rows in front of the band dressed in their green prison uniform.

wildbirds and peacedrums 2
Wildbirds and Peacedrums

The performance by the Wildbirds and Peacedrums duo was relatively short at about 30 minutes and was an exciting mix of percussion and powerfully delivered vocals.  It was really interesting to watch the reaction of the prisoners; at first, it was clear that it was a style of music that few had encountered before, and there were some puzzled expressions and whispered mutterings.  But gradually they seemed to get into the rhythms and energy of the music and heads began to nod and feet tap.  There was an enthusiastic response and the duo played an encore; that led to an even more enthusiastic response and a second encore was demanded and delivered.  Then gradually the inmates filed back to their cells.

This was a very positive and warm experience with the choice of the Wildbirds and Peacedrums duo just right for the occasion.

I have written about the rest of the festival on London Jazz News; you can access the review here.  For reasons of space I did not write about the Amir ElSaffar and Hafez Modirzadeh , trumpet and saxophone duo.   Both are players born and based in the USA, but draw on their Middle Eastern heritages, Iraqi in the case of Amir ElSaffar and Iranian in the case of Modirzadeh.  It made for a beautifully relaxed set, though it was perhaps slightly too long.  I particularly enjoyed Elsaffar’s vocals that drew on the Iraqi maqam tradition.

Graham Collier’s The Vonetta Factor Re-Visited

A musician friend recently mentioned that at the end of certain of his concerts he gives out a recording of the music played and that various friends like to hear the recording before they pass judgement on the concert.   This resonated with me strongly, particularly I have recently had the opportunity to revisit one of Birmingham Jazz’s commissions.  This was The Vonetta Factor which was a commission for Graham Collier which was premiered in Birmingham in November 2004 and was recorded at the London concert the following day.

graham collier
Graham Collier

The commission came about as a result of Birmingham Jazz announcing that it had a budget for a commission and that it was an open call for submissions.  To our considerable surprise, we received an application from Graham Collier, and, after a certain amount of discussion within the Board, we awarded the commission to him.  The premiere took place at the CBSO Centre, one of Birmingham Jazz’s and now Jazzlines’ main venues.

To be honest, I had mixed feelings at the time about the piece and did not buy the CD when it was released some years later (Directing 14 Jackson Pollocks Continuum GCM 2009).  However, reading Duncan Heining’s wonderful biography of Collier that has been published this year (Mosaics: The Life and Works of Graham Collier Equinox, 2018) reminded me of the commission and incited me to buy the album and re-assess the work.

I really like it now and have been playing it repeatedly.

I remember Collier explaining that the title came from Miles Davis’ recording of Vonetta on which Tony Williams creates tension by playing in ways that contrasted dramatically with the main melody as played by the rest of the band.  As Heining explains (Mosaics, p.227) Collier had become interested in creating ‘alternative, independent levels … to add contrast, but, more importantly, to create a division of attention in the listener’ (underlining added).  I realise now that in 2004 I was not ready for this ‘division of attention’, but in 2018 I find it very exciting.  In fact, it is something I hear in many of the more interesting larger ensembles playing today.

The Vonetta Factor makes use of contrast and the juxtaposition of different elements throughout; for example, as the attractive main rumbling theme is developed at the beginning, we hear at certain points sharp stabs from the brass and then the saxophones, then, similarly, during the double bass and tuba solos that follow the development of the theme, the rest of the band interjects at various points.  Then, after about four minutes, we get a major contrast: an extended keyboard solo from Roger Dean making use of electronics, which Heining (p. 243) compares with Stockhausen’s electronic pieces such as Kontakte  or Etude Concrete.  Again, this solo is occasionally interrupted by blasts from the rest of the band.  After this, the piece moves into a gentler, more melodic passage with Ed Speight on guitar, flute (I think it’s Geoff Warren, but the notes are unclear on this), before the mood changes again with solos from Chris Biscoe on baritone sax and Harry Beckett on flugelhorn with the band increasingly wild and free around them.  As it moves towards the conclusion there are fine solos from Fayyaz Virji on trombone and Steve Waterman on trumpet followed by a perhaps more conventional, but occasional wild, build up to a brassy conclusion.

The piece is essentially a series of episodes or ‘collages’ as Heining puts it (p.243), but there is a strong momentum in the way the piece moves on from the different contrasting passages; this is partly due to Collier’s choice of soloists, but also because it is all quite economical and concise despite the free playing and the occasional wildness.  I remember Collier talking of his feeling that other big bands of the time played too many notes; here there is not a single wasted note.  And it all works, albeit, to quote Heining again (p. 243) it ‘does so in its own disorientating way’.

The Vonetta Factor is still available on CD2 of a double album entitled Directing 14 Jackson Pollocks.  Short extracts can be heard online here.    Duncan Heining’s 2018 biography of Collier is in the Popular Music Library series published by Equinox.

I Went This Way: A New Piece by Rachel Musson for the Rachel Musson Mark Sanders Ensemble

I should begin by declaring an interest:  the piece written by Rachel Musson for the new Rachel Musson Mark Sanders Ensemble has been commissioned by TDE Promotions.

Rachel 1
Rachel Musson

I have just attended two days of rehearsal of the new piece, entitled I Went This Way, written for the new nonet, and I am very excited about the piece, which will be premiered on Saturday 21st April as part of the Surge 11 Festival at mac, details and booking here.

The piece features an integrated approach to spoken word and improvised music in what I find to be a very unique and special variation on other approaches to improvisation.  The words, which are spoken by Debbie Sanders, tell the story of Rachel Musson’s process of learning to improvise and developing her own individual voice.  This might initially seem a little self-indulgent, but the actual words are so beautiful and poetic and the way that the composed music and the improvisations of the members of the ensemble underpin and amplify the words is stunning.  At times the voice is dominant, at others the instrumentalists are dominant and the voice becomes just one element of the overall sound.

What struck me most about the music as it developed over the past two days was how well the words and the music are integrated; more importantly perhaps, how there was a momentum about the playing that created that integration.  There was certainly lots of variety, but that variety had a unity about it with the result that the piece felt to be a very satisfying and complete statement.

Mark Sanders by Bruce Milpied2
Mark sanders by Bruce Milipied

The group is very strong; in addition to Rachel on tenor sax, Mark on drums and Debbie on spoken word, it has Sarah Farmer on violin, Richard Scott on viola and Hannah Marshall on cello, forming a string section, Chris Mapp on double bass, forming part of the string section at times and acting as a rhythm instrument at others, and in the saxophone section, it has Lee Griffiths on alto sax and Xhosa Cole on tenor sax and flute, plus Rachel of course.  The piece moves seamlessly between the written and the improvised sections, the latter including passages for soloists, Hannah Marshall’s solo being particularly impressive, to duos – I particularly remember a passage with Chris Mapp and Mark – to sequences by the string or sax sections and, finally, full ensemble passages.  There is some great writing for the ensemble and for the different instrumental sections; I particularly remember a short passage when the saxophones sounded almost Ellingtonian, and also some intense improvising by the strings.

The concert will take place at 4pm in the Main Theatre  at mac.  Other main events in the Surge 11 Festival are Juice Aleem with the Surge Orchestra and the Palestinian clarinet player Mohamed Najem and Friends blending Arabic music with jazz.  There is also lots of good music round the different spaces at mac all starting at 12noon.

The Jazzlines Birmingham programme in April

The Jazzlines Programme in April has four very distinctive gigs that show the range of music that Jazzlines puts round the city.   Jazzlines is the jazz department at Town Hall Symphony Hall Birmingham, and runs the regular Friday foyer session in Symphony Hall, but most of its evening concerts take place in venues round the city.

Lauren Kinsella

Thursday April 19th sees vocalist Lauren Kinsella bring her Snowpoet project to the Hare & Hounds venue in Kings Heath.  Lauren is originally from Dublin, but is now based in London where she is widely regarded as an exceptionally talented singer at ease in different styles. Lauren was a Jazzlines Jerwood Fellow, the culmination of which was a wonderful performance of poetry set to music which was also declaimed by an actor.  Her Snowpoet project is heavily influenced by alternative folk and indie music.  You can hear a sample here.

The next day (Friday 20th April) Jazzlines hooks up with the Eastside Jazz Club in the new Royal Birmingham Conservatoire building (Jennens Road) to present Jim Bashford’s Construction, a quartet with saxophonist Trish Clowes, Icelandic guitarist Hilmar Jensson and Tim Harries  on electric bass. Jim Bashford is a great drummer and this project is a peak of his creative activity.  You can hear a sample here.

Also at the Eastside Jazz Club Jazzlines collaborates on Thursday 26th April  with the Jazz Department there to present one of UK’s top small groups: the Julian Siegel Quartet with Julian on saxophone, Liam Noble on piano, Oli Hayhurst on bass and Gene Calderazzo on drums.  This should be very special in the intimate atmosphere of the jazz club.  Hear the music here.

Mark Guiliana

The following day (Friday 27th April) sees the highlight of the month and quite possibly the gig of the year: Mark Guiliana Quartet in the CBSO Centre (Berkley Street, off Broad Street).  It is no exaggeration to say that Mark is one of the world’s finest jazz drummers and he leads a fine quartet.  Mark was particularly brilliant in the group that accompanied David Bowie on his final album Black Star.    Listen here.

I should also mention that trumpeter Bryan Corbett leads his quartet at The Jam House on Tuesday 17th April.  Bryan is a great trumpet player and his gigs always create a relaxed and swinging atmosphere.  It’s free entry at The Jam House.

I should clarify that I am Programme Adviser to the Jazzlines programme at Town Hall Symphony Hall working with Mary Wakelam Sloan, Programme Manager.   Details of the Jazzlines programme and links to booking are at under Jazz and Blues