Uncanny Valley: Tom Challenger, Phil Donkin, Oliver Steidle Tour UK

uncanny valleyNext week sees the debut tour of UK of a new trio with the name Uncanny Valley featuring Tom Challenger on tenor sax, Phil Donkin on double bass and Oliver Steidle on drums.  They play London’s Vortex Jazz Club on Tuesday 26th March, Jazz at The Lescar Sheffield on Wednesday 27th and the Hexagon Theatre at mac Birmingham on Thursday 28th.  The group formed in July 2017 and perform original music composed by the British contingent of its members. Challenger and Donkin are long-time associates from London, where Challenger still resides. Donkin and Steidle are Berlin based, and perform together in a variety of settings, namely ‘Killing Popes’. But in contrast to that group, this music is acoustic.

They have a new album entitled just Uncanny Valley and you can access the music here.  The music is very rhythmic and interactive with wonderful call and response between Tom on tenor sax and Oliver on the drums plus strong bass lines from Phil.  One reviewer describes it in the following way:

Any accepted forms of what we know as improvised music are indeed challenged, questioned, swallowed, digested and redistributed here as this marvellous cauldron of coalescence (Roger Koch, Spaffington Herald)

uncanny valley1I have always enjoyed Tom Challenger’s music and regard him as an important figure in that interesting area of adventurous music that moves between structure and freedom, and composition and improvisation.  In many ways this is now the mainstream of jazz and improvised music, and, as suggested by the quote above, Uncanny Valley is doing something new and original in this area.

The concept of ‘uncanny valley’ suggests humanoid objects that appear almost, but not quite, like real human beings, elicit uncanny or strangely familiar feelings.  I’m not sure how that helps with the music, but it is an interesting name and so much better than the Tom Challenger Trio.





Jim Bashford, Drew Gress, John O’Gallagher, Liam Noble at Eastside Jazz Club + Meridians Album

This quartet was put together by drummer Jim Bashford and two years ago undertook a short tour of UK recording an album at the end of the tour.  On the occasion of the release of the album, entitled Meridians on the FMR Records label, Jim invited Drew back over to do two days of workshops with the jazz students at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and to play a gig with the quartet in the Eastside Jazz Club at the Conservatoire.

jim bashfordAll the tunes were penned by Jim and he has developed a very distinctive compositional voice.  Most of his tunes take their inspiration from the martial arts and kung fu, so we have titles such as Chi Meditation and the Don Teen or Hay Goang Breathing, and certainly this inspiration results in music that has its own strong and distinctive character.  The quartet really brings out this distinctiveness with strong individual voices that fit extremely well together; Jim and Drew on double bass provide a strong and integrated foundation and the interaction between John on the alto and Liam on piano is very special.  Jim’s drumming is impressive: he came relatively late to the jazz course at the Conservatoire with, I believe, a background in rock drumming.  Being taught by Tony Levin and playing with musicians such as Paul Dunmall has enabled him to add a wonderful grasp of contemporary jazz drumming to the energy of his rock beginnings.

All of this is apparent on the Cd; for example, on Track 1 Chi Meditation and the Don Teen John and Liam interact through short solos complementing each other perfectly.  Track 3 Long Bridge Principle features a very interesting rhythmic figure built through the interaction between Drew and Jim.  The longest track, For Ray and the Laughter, is a tribute to Jim’s uncle and its quirky free-er feel perhaps reflects something of his uncle’s character.

It was instructive to hear the music live after listening to it on the Cd.   As ever in the live situation, the music came across more strongly than on the Cd and the way the music is built around the strong individual voices of the four musicians was very much in evidence.  One particular example:  on the Cd the track For Ray and the Laughter seems, as noted above, to focus on the quirky and witty side of Ray, in the concert it seemed to focus on the laughter and the fun.  Nonetheless I strongly recommend the Cd.

drew gressI should add that in the first part of the concert two student groups presented the material that they had been working on with Drew.  This material included tunes by Ornette Coleman and Bill McHenry as well as Drew’s own.  Both groups performed well, but Ensemble 2 struck me as being just little more relaxed with the material.


CD Meridians  FMR Records CD533-1218 2018  http://www.fmr-records.com

Evan Parker at The Vortex, 7th March 2019

Every month Evan Parker has a regular gig at the Vortex Jazz Club in Dalston London and each month he invites a number of musicians to work with him for the night.  I like to catch these sessions as often as I can as I love the way that Evan reacts to and interacts with the different musicians and because I have always been struck by the way that a group can come together and through improvisation create something special.

evan parker
Evan Parker

This month it was a quartet with clarinettist/guitarist Alex Ward, flautist Neil Metcalfe, and viola player Benedict Taylor; Evan was playing just soprano saxophoneWithout double bass and drums and therefore no specific groove the group created a whole series of interesting textures that had more of a contemporary music feel than a jazz feel.  They started gently as a quartet with everyone finding their place within the improvisations.  Benedict Taylor perhaps bided his time, initially making small contributions but gradually making a nice contrast with the three woodwind instruments.  As the first set progressed the group broke down seamlessly into trios and duos and one short soprano saxophone solo before concluding the set as a quartet.  I particularly enjoyed the interaction between flute and saxophone, the contrast in sound between the clarinet and the soprano saxophone and the variety provided by the viola.

The second set began with two planned duo improvisations, the first between Alex Ward on clarinet and Benedict Taylor on viola, the second between Evan and Neil Metcalfe, both quite distinctive and both brilliant, but I have to say that the flute sax interaction had a really interesting sonic range.  These two improvisations were followed by quartet improvisations with Alex Ward switching to guitar and producing lines that fitted well with those of the viola.  The set concluded with another soprano saxophone solo from Evan and it was fascinating to see how the three other members of the group stopped contributing and left the floor to Evan out of respect for him.  However, at the end of the set Evan was at pains to point that this had not been planned; it just happened.

As I say above, the music had a contemporary music feel to it, but had a freshness and spontaneity that I feel is not always present in composed contemporary music.  Listening to the two sets also brought home to me how rich and varied improvised music is today.  It really is a separate category that has as much variety and is as difficult to define as is the term jazz.  In the meantime I await with anticipation news of who Evan will be working with in future sessions.

Jacob Garchik and the UK Gospel Trombone Choir Touring

In the pieces I write for this site I try to mix information about forthcoming gigs I am involved with more general pieces about an aspect of the scene that interests me.  In writing about Jacob Garchik and the forthcoming tour with the UK Gospel Choir, I am doing a bit of both.

jacob garchik1
Jacob Garchik

The UK Gospel Trombone Choir has come about as a result of the enthusiasm of both myself and trombonist Richard Foote for the music of Jacob Garchik, a New York based trombone player.  I first heard Jacob in a small group setting with drummer Dan Weiss and pianist Jacob Sacks.  I was then really taken with an album called The Heavens devoted to brass interpretations of gospel songs and was delighted to learn that Richard, leader of the inspirational Young Pilgrims band, was similarly enthused.  With the Arts Council funding for the TDE Promotions/Fizzle programme in place, we invited Jacob to come over and work with a UK version of the band selected by Richard.

I have always enjoyed listening to brass bands and often thought that an element of improvisation could be incorporated into their music.  So I was delighted to hear Neil Yates’ Sketches of a Northern Town, a project that did precisely that, a brass band feel with great jazz solos.  That was commissioned and premiered by Manchester Jazz Festival and also performed at Cheltenham Jazz Festival.

The Gospel Trombone Choir is, however, somewhat different.  It draws its inspiration from Jacob Garchik’s love of gospel music which he describes as ‘some of the greatest music I’d ever heard’ and from the tradition in the United House of Prayer churches on the East Coast of the USA of mass trombone choirs playing gospel songs.  Jacob describes that music as ‘very passionate, very exciting’ (Jazzlines newspaper).  That same passion and excitement is there in the trombone choir that Jacob formed in New York.  You can listen to a sample here.

richard foote
Richard Foote

The UK version has six trombones plus Jacob himself, tuba and drums.  It plays the CBSO Centre, Birmingham on Saturday 16th March (details here), the Yellow Arch, Sheffield on Sunday 17th (details here), and the Vortex London on Monday 18th (details here).

The quotes from Jacob are from the Jazzlines newspaper published by Town Hall Symphony Hall available at all Jazzlines gigs.

Six Contemporary Vocalists in Jazz

One of the interesting things about the current scene across Europe is the number of singers developing a different take on the role of the vocalist in the ensemble.  I have to confess that, along with, I suspect, a lot of other jazz fans, I have always regarded myself as a fan of instrumental music rather than vocal music.  I love Billie Holiday, but have always struggled with singers such as Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter and it took me some time to get into Ella Fitzergerald.

However, these days many singers seem to see themselves as members of the group rather than as the frontline performer with a supporting group.  They take solos and interact with the rest of the group as one member of that group.   I find this approach very attractive.

luciaLucia Cadotsch, the Swiss singer based in Berlin, is an excellent example; in her Speak Low trio with bass player Petter Eldh and saxophonist Otis Sandjsö.  Lucia takes classic songs such as Speak Low, Moon River and Strange Fruit.  Lucia has a beautiful voice and her rendition of the songs is fairly faithful to the originals, but in the trio Petter and Otis create high energy lines that contrast with the vocals.  This contrast creates a powerful mix in which the vocals are just one strand.  You can check this out here.

leila martial photoThe French singer Leila Martial is similar in her approach though her actual music is very different from Lucia’s.  Her vocals are always extremely adventurous, but they always integrate with her group, the Baabox trio, or in duo with cellist Valentin Ceccaldi.  You can listen to some of her music here.

Cleveland Watkiss has a new group, the Cleveland Watkiss Allstars with Jason Yarde or Pat Thomas, Neil Charles and Mark Sanders.  In it Cleveland improvises around various cleveland watkissthemes, the Windrush, the contribution of the Afro-Caribbean community to Britain, Brexit and ecology.  At his recent performance at mac I was particularly impressed by the way Cleveland integrated his vocals with Jason Yarde’s saxophone and electronics and by the groove that Neil Charles and Mark Sanders created.  Again this is an integrated group with Cleveland’s vocals one part of the mix.  Have a listen here.

Cleveland makes extensive use of the voice processor to create loops and add depth to the vocals.    I have recently heard two young vocalists making very effective use beccaof the voice processor.  One was Rebecca Wilkins, usually known as Becca.  She was performing with a small version of the Argle Bargle group and showed that she is able to use the voice processor to very good effect.  Becca is one half of the Wilkins/Harris vocal piano duo (sample here) that will be supporting Kandace Springs at Cheltenham Jazz Festival this year.  The second was Ayse Cansu Tanrıkulu, a young Turkish singer currently based in Berlin and working with James Banner’s USINE group as well as her own group (listen here).  Cansu is an exciting singer who in her most adventurous moments reminds me a bit of Phil Minton.

natalieMy final example is Natalie Sandtorv, a Norwegian singer who appeared in Birmingham last month in a residency with her drummer partner Ole Mofjell in the Not On The Guest List duo; they were working with two Birmingham based musicians, pianist Andy Woodhead and saxophonist Lee Griffiths.  Natalie likes to take poems and develop them as lyrics, she also makes use of electronic effects and on this project and in her own group her work is an excellent example of what is happening in contemporary vocal jazz. You can hear a sample of her own group here.

Evan Parker, Alex Hawkins, ENEMY with the Riot Ensemble

Birmingham and London audiences were privileged to hear the concert in which Alex Hawkins and Evan Parker and then the ENEMY trio with Kit Downes, Petter Eldh and James Maddren collaborated with The Riot Ensemble, Alex and Evan in the first set, and ENEMY in the second.  I was the promoter for the Birmingham gig in the lovely Hexagon Theatre and it is therefore inappropriate for me to write a review.  But I do want to share the amazing photographs that Brian Homer took of the Birmingham show, you can access them here.

The concert began with an engaging performance of Lee Hyla’s We Speak Etruscan performed by Amy Green on baritone saxophone and Ausias Garrigos on bass clarinet.  The piece is dedicated to Tim Berne, so it was highly appropriate to have this piece in the programme given the strong relationship between Tim and Birmingham and the fact that Tim had performed in the same venue last year.

Riot009_3105SMThe piece with Alex and Evan was built around Evan’s improvisations on soprano saxophone and Alex’s creation of various textures for the ensemble that complemented Evan’s playing.  There were also passages with the duo of Evan and Alex weaving in and out of the ensemble passages.

The set with ENEMY seemed quite different and it was interesting to note how different it was.  The set alternated between some of ENEMY’s most recent material played by the trio, and strong rhythmic passages for the ensemble and trio.

Both sets were great fun and were enjoyed by a full and very enthusiastic audience in the Hexagon Theatre at mac in Birmingham.  There was a very unusual event in the ENEMY set when Peter Eldh’s bass suddenly burst as the bridge had broken.Riot053_3355SM  Luckily Petter was able to find the screws , rebuild the bridge and was ready to play again in 5mins.

I understand that the reaction in London the following night at Café Oto was just as positive. See Richard Williams’ revue here.

ENEMY’s material for the trio was recorded on their new album ENEMY on the Edition label.

Photos of the Birmingham gig by Brian Homer.

James Banner Returns to the West Midlands with his USINE Group

Bass player James Banner returns to his home region, the West Midlands, this Friday 22nd February to play the Friday Jazzlines session on the Symphony Hall foyer with his group USINE.  James was brought up in Dudley and was a key member of the Birmingham Jazz, then Jazzlines Ensembles, initially tutored by Sid Peacock and then by Percy Pursglove.  James then went on to study jazz at Birmingham Conservatoire before moving to Berlin to study for a Masters in jazz.

james bannerJames has settled down well in Berlin and is very much part of the jazz and improv scenes in that city, but is now also beginning to divide his time between Berlin and Leeds College of Music where he is teaching jazz and improvisation.

Berlin has become a key hub in European jazz and many players from different countries have made the city their base.  This is partly because rents in Berlin, especially in the old East Berlin, have been quite cheap – though I understand this is changing – and partly because Berlin has a good number of music venues, many of them very small and intimate, but which are perfect places for more experimental music.  In 2017  I was in Berlin and was able to catch James playing with his teacher Greg Cohen in the Donau 115 club, a small but very atmospheric club in the Neukölln area of Berlin.

One of the features of the European jazz and improv scenes is that cities such as Berlin or Amsterdam or Copenhagen have become centres where players from different countries gather and form groups that bring together different traditions from their own countries.  There is still such a thing as, say, Norwegian jazz, or Dutch jazz, but increasingly I observe that there is a European sound, different from that in the USA, but not linked to a particular national scene.  This sound draws its energy from the coming together of players originally from different scenes.

James’ group is an excellent example of this tendency.  The core group is a quartet USINEwith James on double bass, pianist Declan Forde from Scotland, vocalist Cansu  Tanrıkulu from Turkey and drummer Max Andrzewski from Germany.  All now live in Berlin.

They have brought out an album on the Jazz Haus label with the title USINE.  The music is based on James’ compositions, but there is constant movement between the compositions and improvisation and plenty of freedom for the members of the group to go their own way.  There are 13 tracks in all, some of them quite short, others rather longer.  It is noticeable that the shorter tracks, for example the opening track Waltz or Track 5 05 12345, are intense and dramatic with Cansu Tanrıkulu’s vocals often leading the way, sometimes sung, sometimes spoken and occasionally USINE Cdscreamed.  On other tracks, for example Track 6 Meow Meow Meow, Declan Forde’s excellent piano solos dominate.  On the slightly longer tracks the music is mostly more mellow so that, for example, the vocals on the final track Vigil are gentle and beautiful.  Overall, it is an album characteristic of today’s contemporary jazz with the mixture of structure and freedom, full of drama and strong soloing, but occasionally quite challenging to listen to.

There are contributions on the album from violinist Fabiana Striffler and guitarist Arne Braun, but the group appearing on Friday will be the core quartet.  The session runs from 5pm to 6.30pm and entry is free.