Punkt Festival 2020

This year’s Punkt Festival took place in Kristiansand Norway from 3rd to 5th September. It was a somewhat reduced festival this year, but still managed to have quite a large audience – not sure why we can’t do that in UK yet.

The groups playing were all Norwegian and many of the well established contemporary Norwegian players known to the British scene were there: Arve Henriksen, Eivind Aarset, Audun Kleive, Mats Eilertsen and Nils Petter Molvaer, who was featured in two sessions to mark his 60th birthday. There were also a number of younger players, less well known, at least here. Pianist Anja Lauvdal was Artist in Residence composing the festival’s commissioned work, and performing in three sets, the first with her trio Moskus with bass player Fredik Luhr Deitrichson and drummer Hans Hulbaekmo, the second the commission with a large ensemble consisting of a piano trio, a string trio and an oboe, and finally with the group Finity which she co-leads with tuba player Heida K. Johannesdottir and which has Hanna Paulsberg on tenor saxophone. The festival was directed and curated by the two sound manipulators and founders of the festival: Jan Bang and Erik Honore

Anja Lauvdal

Having been away for ten days, I have caught up with the festival online. It has struck me as having been, despite the limitations caused by the pandemic, a very strong edition.

As many readers of this will know, the principle of the Punkt Festival is that each set is followed by a remix set. The remix follows on immediately from the first set and those doing the remix are on stage during the first set downloading and preparing their material. This was exemplified in the first session where Moskus’ richly varied set was followed by the remix done by two young performers: Kristine Hoff and Kristien Isachsen. They began by picking up and repeating a short phrase from Lauvdal’s piano which they gradually manipulated and transformed it into electronic sounds. They then followed a similar procedure with various sounds from the drums and cymbals before launching into more abstract sounds. In the final section Hoff added a short vocal passage underpinned by a faint sound of the piano. All in all, it was a very original and impressive piece of music.

This is the basic pattern, a set from an acoustic group, albeit augmented by electronics, followed by the remix on laptop and electronics. But there are other patterns. The festival commission The School of Lost Borders – a very enjoyable piece that integrated the piano trio with the string trio and oboe very successfully – was followed by a remix by Jan Bang and Erik Honore on laptops accompanied by Nils Petter Molvaer on the trumpet. This went way beyond the original commission to create a really dramatic and original piece.

This combining of the laptop remix with live instruments was also the pattern with the programme on the Saturday. The first set featured a solo performance entirely on cymbals by percussionist Audun Kleive; this was followed by a second set with accordionist Frode Halti and violinist Erlend Apneseth. The remix set featured Erik Honore and a string duo Vilde & Inga, and again this took the music way beyond the original two sets.

There is another pattern: a duo performance between a live instrument and laptop, but not in a remix situation. Eivind Aarset and Jan Bang performed Snow Catches on her Eyelashes, in which they explored different ways of interacting, picking up and playing with ideas and throwing them back to each other. Similarly, trumpeter Arve Hensriksen and guitarist Eivind Aarset joined Jan Bang in the stunning piece The Height of The Reeds.

This short analysis raises the question of how far the remixes should go beyond the original. Some pick up fragments of the original and transform them while others seem to create an original piece of music that reflects something of the spirit of the original rather than quoting from it. Both strike me as valid approaches. What is undeniable is that both approaches produce truly fascinating and original pieces of music.

Shifa Live In Oslo: 577 Records 5840 and Miles Davis Complete Live at The Plugged Nickel 1965

A review of a contemporary improvising group and throughts on the box set of the Miles Davis Quintet at The Plugged Nickel

live in osloShifa is an improvising trio with Rachel Musson on tenor saxophone, Pat Thomas on piano and Mark Sanders on drums.  Its name is derived from the Arabic word shifa’a, which means healing. It’s a trio that has played a number of gigs in UK and recorded a live gig at Café Oto.  Live In Oslo on the Brooklyn label is their second album.  On the vinyl album there are two tracks, Taste, at 18.18mins, and Blas, at 15.46, but the live performance was straight through, and one should endeavour to listen to it as one single performance.

It is a very powerful performance that brings out all the excitement and variety that the best of improvised music can create.  The improvisations flow in different directions, yet there is always a logic to them in the way that they create a series of arcs that gradually build up to a climax and then relax.  Rachel Musson’s playing is much forceful here as compared to that on her recent duo album with Corey Mwamba What We Said When We Met, see my review here; she moves from quite jagged phrases to melodic phrases, and always seems to have a set of fresh ideas.  Pat Thomas varies from providing a strong rhythmic support for Rachel to interacting with her in a kind of call and response process.  Mark Sanders provides an always unpredictable set of rhythmic variations that are just right for this trio.

Miles Davis Quintet: Live At The Plugged Nickel (December 1965)

Plugged NickelI have owned this box set since it was first issued and have dipped into it on occasion, but never played all seven Cds (actually eight as Disc 2 is presented as a double album) straight through one after the other.  This period of isolation has provided the opportunity to listen to the Cds in order each day over the past week.  It has been a fascinating experience.

The quintet is the second great Miles Davis Quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams and they are on great form.  Miles and Wayne are on top form and their creativity is simply amazing.  It’s fascinating how they focus each night on a well-established repertoire of material from American songbook, e.g. I Fall In Love Too Easily, which is played five times over the two evenings, or Autumn Leaves, played three times, and up tempo numbers such as No Blues or Walkin’, and manage to do something different with them on each occasion.  This is particularly the case with Miles and Wayne, but Herbie less so.  He plays well, but his solos strike me as being less creative than the others; he is, however, brilliant backing Miles’ solos by filling in the pauses.  This reaction of mine may be because he is a little low in the sound mix, or possibly because on those two days he couldn’t match the creativity of Miles and Wayne.  They always solo in the order Miles, Wayne, Herbie and his solos do come as a bit of an anti-climax.  Perhaps others disagree, and perhaps in another setting they would come across as excellent solos.

Ron Carter is brilliant throughout providing the strong rhythmic support essential to the group and Tony Williams provides the cross-rhythms that help to make the music so exciting.

Also fascinating is the fact that the quintet plays three sets of about an hour each on the first night and four sets of a similar length on the second.   The US club scene was demanding in those days!

I strongly recommend this as an activity appropriate for this period.  Or, in fact, for any other period!

Hal Singer 1919 – 2020: Warm Memories Of A Visit to Birmingham

hal singerHal Singer came to Birmingham in 2006 to play with Andy Hamilton and David Murray, and I retain a warm memory of that visit.

It came about as a result of the long friendship between Birmingham’s Andy Hamilton and the American saxophonist David Murray.  David got to know Andy when he was playing in Birmingham with his Octet and they became good friends, see Dudley-Evans (2017).  Whenever I saw David at festivals, he would always ask after Andy, and then on one occasion he mentioned that he had been playing with Hal in Paris and that Hal reminded him of Andy.

David Murray, Andy Hamilton and Hal Singer
Andy Hamilton, David Murray and Hal Singer at Corks. 29th September 2006.

I immediately resolved to set up a meeting between the three and after some complications with David’s commitments we managed to set up two dates, the first on 29th September at Corks Club, Andy’s regular venue, and the second the following day at the CBSO Centre.  At that time David was based in Paris where Hal had settled down and married Arlette.

Hal Singer was born in Tulsa in 1919, and started his career in territory big bands, including the Jay McShann Band, and I wonder if he was in the band at the same time as Charlie Parker.  He moved to New York in 1943, and in the late 1940s joined the Duke Ellington Band.  Shortly after that he had some success with his Corn Bread track that went to the top of the R&B chart in 1948.  He toured the R&B circuit for many years, but subsequently came back to jazz playing in small group mainstream groups.  He had a strong tone on the tenor saxophone and style similar to that of the ‘tough’ tenor saxophonists.

The visit to Birmingham and the bringing together of the three saxophonists was a great success.  They played with Andy’s Blue Notes at Corks and then at the CBSO Centre we added bass player Larry Bartley and drummer Rod Youngs to the group.  Hal was great fun and I will always remember how he when meeting a new person he would say ‘If I’d known you were coming, I would have baked a cake’! 

It was wonderful to hear the three players together and I particularly remember how it brought the very best out of Andy’s playing.

Hal Singer lived to celebrate his centenary, but died earlier in August this year.

The photograph of Hal, David and Andy was taken by Russ Escritt.

Reference

Dudley-Evans, A. (2017) The friendship between David Murray and Andy Hamilton Jazz Research Journal 11 (1), pp. 87-88.

The Centenary of Charlie Parker’s Birth

parkerCharlie Parker is rightly considered by many to be the most important musician in the history of jazz, certainly in bebop and probably in the whole of modern and contemporary jazz.  Others go further and regard him as one of the most important and influential musicians of the 20th Century in any genre; Lee Konitz regarded Parker and Stockhausen as the two most important musicians of that century, while George Lewis regarded Parker and John Cage as the two most significant musicians in that century’s experimental music.

Parker’s music has been extremely important for me, but I was initially quite strongly opposed to it. My first love in music was the New Orleans style and the 1950s British versions of it and at that time if one was into traditional jazz, one was duty bound to hate modern jazz.  I’m glad those days have passed!

I gradually broadened my taste and learnt to enjoy the music of the 1930s and 1940s big bands and the small groups that came out of the Ellington and Basie bands, bands such as the small groups led by Johnny Hodges, Lester Young, and others led by Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge.  That led fairly naturally into an appreciation of bebop and especially the music of Charlie Parker.  I can still remember the excitement of discovering his music and listening over and over again to certain tracks – I only had a few at the beginning!   I particularly remember listening to and being blown away by the intensity of Donna Lee, an up tempo track that has a passionate Parker solo.  I also remember repeatedly playing Koko, Ornithology and being moved by the blues feel of Parker’s Mood.  Then there was that amazing break on Night In Tunisia and the more relaxed tracks that Parker made after his stay in Camarillo Hospital, e.g. Relaxin’ at Camarillo.  I especially enjoyed the live recordings with Dizzy Gillespie such as that at Carnegie Hall and the later concert at Massey Hall in Canada.

I bought the albums with all the alternate takes of the tracks on the Eros Savoy label; there were often up to five takes of a given tune and I used to drive my parents mad by playing these straight through. I also read various books about Parker’s life and music

There was quite a long period when I regarded my Parker albums as the only ones really worth playing, and I retain a huge respect and love of Parker’s music.  However, I hardly ever play these albums now; initially that was because they were all on vinyl and I was not able to play them.  But even now I have not played a Parker album since the beginning of lockdown, a period when I have been listening to a lot of music.  There are a number of reasons for this.  One is that having listened to the records so often, I know them off by heart and have begun to find quite a bit of repetition in the solos.

Lee Konitz describes this aspect of Parker’s playing very well; he describes going to hear Parker in a club after hearing some of his early records and finding his live playing very similar to his playing on the records.  His reaction was to say ‘Wow, that sounded like the record.” Konitz goes on to say that he realised then that Parker ‘was really prepared, well-prepared, and listened to him that way and appreciated how well he did it—when he did it well—in the same way that you would appreciate a classical player’ (https://dantepfer.com/blog/?p=424).   Konitz develops this point in an interview with Andy Hamilton (Hamilton, 2007, p.103) where he suggests that Parker was really a great composer who ‘conceived of these great phrases and fit (sic.) them together in the most logical way and played them until they came alive – and then decided to depend on what really communicated with the audience’.  In other words, Konitz is suggesting that Parker had a set of brilliant phrases that he used in different keys and in different combinations.

This is certainly very apparent in the many takes of the tracks made in the late 1940s on the Savoy label where Parker would play a very different solo for each take by varying the mosaic of his phrases.  Konitz also suggests in an interview (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AQasBBGbttY) that Parker suffered from the way he was widely imitated by other musicians, but for health reasons was not able to develop a new approach in the way that later players such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane were able several times to re-invent themselves musically.

parker with red rodneyThis leads on to my second point; most of Parker’s recordings were with small groups, and these recordings were often rather formulaic with a nice tune leading into a series of short solos and finishing with the repeat of the tune.  This is the standard bop formula and it is an approach that is still very much in use today.  Andy Hamilton in interviewing Konitz (Hamilton, ibid, p. 105) refers to a comment by Red Rodney (pictured with Parker here) that he found playing with Parker as ‘a bit predictable’ and tried to persuade Parker to try ‘different songs and in different keys’ .

These comments by Konitz and Rodney resonate with me and I have to admit that I find that many of Parker’s small group recordings are, despite the brilliance of Parker’s solos, not really great pieces of music.  They are very enjoyable and listenable, and established the dominance of the small group in modern jazz, but do not have the breadth and ambition of later work from Miles Davis and John Coltrane.  Of course both Davis and Coltrane had long careers and the opportunities to develop more ambitious work and new approaches, while Parker suffered from drug addiction and died very young.  It is known that Parker was keen to develop work other than in the standard small group bop format, and the sessions with strings are an example of this, but his lifestyle meant that these experiments were limited in number.

My conclusion is that we should regard Parker as the early pioneer whose revolutionary ideas reached their fruition in the later work of other giants.  To take a metaphor from linguistics, he changed both the grammar and the discourse of jazz – no mean feat – but the full potential of these changes came later.

I am grateful to Peter Bacon for comments on an early draft of this piece.

Reference

Hamilton, Andy (2007) Lee Konitz: Conversations on the Improviser’s Art Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press

A Very Interesting Article Comparing Spotify and Bandcamp

This article is well worth reading, you can access it here.  Essentially it makes the point that Spotify follows a kind of Starbucks competitive model in that it wants to persuade listeners to spend more time on its streams rather than on other sources for listening for music in the same way that Starbucks aims to replace small neighbourhood cafes.  This leads to a situation in which royalties paid to musicians are incredibly low.  Bandcamp, by contrast, is a business that supports musicians, facilitates their placing music online and enables them to choose their own pricing structure.

I have found in this period of lockdown and the current slightly eased lockdown I have become a big fan of Bandcamp and have downloaded a huge amount of music from it.  I have done this partly because I know that the musicians will get a fair share of the price paid, especially on the occasional Fridays when Bandcamp pays 100% of the income to the musicians, but also because having the music online makes listening in a slightly different way possible.  Let me explain.

I have always felt that to do the music and the musicians justice and to judge a piece of work, one should sit down and listen to a Cd from beginning to end without interruption.  One should then, if possible, read around about the artists and find a review of the album, and then ideally listen to the album again.  This is my policy and I will certainly follow it if I am to write a review of the album.   This is what I did with Paul Dunmall’s latest album The Feeling Principle with Liam Noble, John Edwards and Mark Sanders.  See the review in the post below.

Having albums on Bandcamp, by contrast, enables me to listen in short bursts, often in a period of relaxation from other online activity.  It may be two or three tracks at a time, or just one if time is limited.  This may not be as exhaustive a process as listening to a whole Cd in one sitting, but it has meant I have listened to a lot more music in this period, and feel that I am reasonably up to date on what is happening in the world’s different jazz centres, i.e. New York, Berlin, London etc.

Some examples of recent Bandcamp downloads:

John Hollenbeck: Songs You Like A Lot:  this is a most attractive album featuring popular songs arranged by Hollenbeck for singers Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckmann, pianist Gary Versace and the Frankfurt Radio Big Band.  Hollenbeck’s arrangements are most impressive and it is great to hear these songs in such a rich environment.

BassDrumBone:  The Long Road This is a trio with Ray Anderson on trombone, Mark Helias on double bass and Gerry Hemingway on drums.  We presented the trio in Birmingham in the 1990s but haven’t heard much of them since then, and so it was a delight to discover this album.  They are joined on certain tracks by Jason Moran on piano and on others by Joe Lovano on tenor saxophone.

Elda ft. Faye MacCalman: Hippocampinae   This is an album that brings together Elda with Faye MacCalman of Archipelago to create fascinating electronic textures.  The album features Aaron Diaz, trumpet & electronics, Andrew Woodhead, keyboards, synthesizers, pocket piano & electronics and
Faye MacCalman, saxophones, clarinets, guitar & electronics.