Cast your mind back to last year’s London Jazz Festival and the Impulse Records night. Tenor saxophonist Chris Potter, joining the trio of the great pianist and composer McCoy Tyner, forever associated with the John Coltrane Quartet, was there on stage, as was a suited and booted José James performing a concert at the Barbican themed around the John Coltrane And Johnny Hartman album.

Two years earlier, this time a few miles away at Ronnie Scott’s in Soho, James was the headliner, following on from the promise of his album The Dreamer but again channelling Coltrane with the gig catching fire on ‘My Favorite Things’ and the tremendous opening to ‘Equinox’ the song that first caught Gilles Peterson’s ear when the DJ signed him to his label Brownswood although the song could not be included on the album. So you had to hear it live. But when the singer now 34 who’s from Minneapolis but living these days in Brooklyn moved to the highest end of his range harmonising with soprano saxophone on ‘Naima’ it was plain for anyone there on the night that James was truly special. But the conundrum remained: which direction would he go in?

There’s been a fair amount of water under the bridge since even the LJF date just under a year ago with McCoy. James has returned to a clubbier vibe, and was signed to Blue Note this year most recently in London supporting Robert Glasper at the iTunes fest in the Roundhouse and playing Shoreditch’s Bedroom Bar the following night. No Beginning No End, his first release for his new label, does not come out until towards the end of January next year, but such has the buzz been already it’s a good chance before all the fuss around the physical release to look ahead to what promises to be a huge breakthrough for the talented singer. The 11-track album has a very clever retro feel to it, gathered around songs like the insistent laidback third track ‘Trouble’, a song that recalls the impact of hearing a song such as ‘Rehab’ for the first time. It’s clear that the album is a game changer for James moving him into a different area within popular music but retaining enough interest to appeal to jazz fans who have followed his career from the early Brownswood days. Soul seems to be more a natural fit for James than his earlier dabblings in hip hop, say, on the album Black Magic. The rest of the new album is just as strong and for me ‘Bird of Space’, the ninth track is the ultimate song on the record with lyrics and music by James with Fender Rhodes, guitar and drums although it doesn’t have the instant appeal and groove of ‘Trouble’. It might stay with you longer, though. The album opens with ‘It’s All Over Your Body’, which has a seductive feel that increasingly is also James’ direction. Bassist Pino Palladino who is one of the producers of the album, along with JJ and Brian Bender, appears on most of the tracks, and there are some guest vocalists for James to duet with, for instance Hindi Zahra on ‘Sword and Gun’, and Emily King on ‘Heaven on the Ground.’ This is soul coming at you from a very different angle to say Gregory Porter on Be Good, but the two have things very much in common, supreme musicianship and individualism, however James even plays with the fine keyboards player Grant Windsor and broken beats drum stylist Richard Spaven, the piano/drum team who perform from time to time with Gregory and who joined him for his Pizza Express Jazz Club show in July when Jamie Cullum guested.

Alistair White who was performing with Van Morrison at Ronnie Scott’s this week sounds great on trombone as does the trumpeter Takuya Kuroda who makes you think back to the freshness of acid jazz horn sampling days when Blue Note opened up the vaults back in the 1990s for DJs to breathe some new freshness into the old stuff, and Lee Morgan became a kind of hipster king all over again. Kuroda and White sound mighty fine together as they did live at the Roundhouse. The other track worth mentioning at this stage is ‘Vanguard’, and it’s every bit as good as ‘Trouble’, again with lyrics by JJ but music by Robert Glasper no less, with Glasper on Fender Rhodes, Chris ‘Daddy’ Dave on drums and Palladino again.

So an album to get excited about and look forward to, and a great way of working towards that old music industry phrase built on a certain intuitive common sense, leaving aside the Ray Charles resonance, but retaining that feeling you just know once you’ve heard the magic even once: jazz + soul = genius.

Stephen Graham

Pictured José James

Here’s a version of ‘Trouble’ in session: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Gz2kqOupCI

Guy Barker has arranged a new suite based on Kind of Blue with his jazz orchestra joined by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra to be recorded for radio broadcast.

The trumpeter and bandleader, film composer and arranger has had a high profile year with a Proms appearance, and in November he’s involved once more on the opening night of the London Jazz Festival when he conducts and arranges for a host of singers and his jazz orchestra at the Gala Vocals night held in the Barbican,

Before that for this one-off highly ambitious project Barker with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra is combining in a presentation later this month called Miles Symphonic: The Music of Miles Davis at the glitzy Blackpool Tower Ballroom in the much loved Lancashire seaside resort.

Last year the BBC Philharmonic launched the first of a series of concerts of which this is the latest and what’s intended on this occasion is that Barker and his orchestra team up with the Philharmonic for a Milesian evening to be broadcast live.

The BBC Phil has broadened its horizons with cross-genre collaborations in the past few years featuring the likes of indie band the XX and singer Richard Hawley, but this is something of a first in terms of a major jazz project for them. The concert is on 17 October, and tickets are available through a ballot at www.bbc.co.uk/tickets until 8 October.

Stephen Graham

Guy Barker pictured

Michael Formanek
Small Places
ECM 370 9441 **** PICK OF THE WEEK

State of the art improvising with a forceful presence and massive attack, a mighty fist in a velvet glove, bassist Formanek’s quartet with Tim Berne, Craig Taborn and Gerald Cleaver (pictured above) is on fine form here, following on from their 2010 album The Rub And Spare Change. Berne has clearly moved into a new space with this band, building on the experimentalism of the past, his fascination with the music of Julius Hemphill and much else, and now with nothing to prove just letting it all hang out. Cleaver, expect to hear him on Tomasz Stanko’s next album for ECM, is peerless, pulses appearing, dying away, finding hidden rivers in the improvising stream. As for Formanek he’s the ringmaster in a very special circus. If you want to be obsessed by at least one CD this month then this is it.

Marc Johnson/Eliane Elias
Swept Away
ECM 279 4574 ***
Joe Lovano is the topping on the cake on this very classy quartet record of bass and piano husband and wife team Johnson and Elias also joined by Joey Baron on drums. There’s plenty to savour either via Elias’ own compositions or reliable mainstays such as the folk song ‘Shenandoah’. For sheer musicality it’s hard to beat. But Elias is probably at her best elsewhere interpreting the music of Bill Evans, or the way she adds that special touch to a samba or bossa, yet here she gets very close to her own formidable benchmark.

Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin
Live
ECM 371 4093 2CDs ***
There’s something very unearthly still about the band Ronin, and a feeling the more you listen that it is very much in a category of its own and that can be a lonely place. The minimalism still retains a zing to it despite its pristine cool facąde and all that confusing nonsense about “zen funk". The moduls are as mysterious and slightly chilling as ever, but there is change afoot as Bärtsch introduces a new bassist Thomy Jordi while Björn Meyer moves towards the exit door. I’m not sure if this release sustains two CDs, but it’s elegant, thought provoking and beautifully played, yet somehow not quite as compelling as in the past. Think twice before committing to this one unless you’re a diehard fan.

Stephen Graham

And who would disagree with Miles Davis quoted above? It’s months off but Ahmad Jamal’s return to play a concert in this country is surely as good a reason as any to have at least one reason to be cheerful on this intermittently dank and typically autumnal Monday.

2012 has been pretty good for Jamal watchers even though the great man has been nowhere to be seen in the UK because in February the illustrious French record company and distributor Harmonia Mundi inaugurated a new jazz label Jazz Village partly in his honour with a Jamal album and Blue Moon more than lived up to even the highest expectations surrounding its release. Surely one of the greatest piano albums in and of the classic jazz tradition in the last decade it featured a stellar trio at its core specially convened for the session performing Jamal originals and choice standards. The great Pittsburgh-born pianist, who turned 82 on 2 July, along with Frank Sinatra counts as a seminal influence on Davis, with Miles typically going out of his way to catch Jamal’s shows when he was passing through Chicago. But besides this historical link Jamal through his Pershing recordings created at the Pershing Lounge from 1958 where the pianist laid down his best known recordings along with bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernel Fournier that not just sold in very large numbers but also provided a snapshot of a music that would be changed irrevocably in the years to come by such innovators as Cecil Taylor, the free jazz movement and its socio-political and cultural consequences, and later by the demands and challenges of jazz-rock. Miles being a scholar of the music from a strictly bandstand point of view would incorporate Jamal’s treatments of ‘But Not For Me’, ‘Billy Boy’, ‘The Surrey With The Fringe On Top’ and more besides into his own repertoire, while at the same time realising intuitively that a milestone had been reached, a there-is-no-turning-back moment and above all a realisation that jazz piano would never be the same again. Jamal, as a master of improvising on standards and original song-based material, in performance can take on the mantle of an Erroll Garner at times as a starting point and layers hugely impressive rhapsodies and serenades almost at the drop of a hat. He’ll quite often, gaffer-like, stand up by the piano, turn his back to the audience to communicate further with the trio, and then sit down to resume the flow. With an extensive discography since the 1950s, in more recent years with the French Dreyfus label, Jamal has a big public across Europe particularly in France and Germany and although he was a fairly regular visitor to the UK in the past it’s now almost five years ago since his last appearances, sadly at an inexplicably poorly attended Ronnie Scott’s when he nonetheless played immaculately. Jamal was honoured by the French government becoming an officer of the order of arts in 2007, and has received many more honours over the years in the United States. Blue Moon features the elegant bassist Reginald Veal, well known for his work with Wynton Marsalis, and more recently Cassandra Wilson; plus the formidable New Orleansian Herlin Riley on drums. They are also joined by former-Weather Report percussionist Manolo Badrena, who has toured with Jamal extensively in recent years.

Stephen Graham

The Ahmad Jamal concert is on 8 February 2013 at the Barbican http://www.barbican.org.uk/music/event-detail.asp?ID=13715

Taking its name from a story about “active dreaming" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Eyes of a Blue Dog is set to debut Rise on Babel Records although the band’s release date is to be confirmed. The Dog, as they surely will be known (?!), are a three-piece vocals/trumpet/drums electronica band filtered via 1970s Milesian metafunk and the release is surely a winner if early advance listens are anything to go by.

The record is a challenging new departure from trumpeter Rory Simmons, here with drummer/electronics head Terje Evensen and singer Elisabeth Nygård-Pearson, with a tiny walk-on part from bassist Chris Hill on the third track ‘Marble Faces’.With tunes written by the Dog mixing Agharta-like flavours without keyboards the artwork betrays no clues to the music inside the slim advance label copy apart from the colour blue, an inspired pantone selection by the designer it must be said, with green lettering cut out of leaves from an artfully blurred potted plant (actual artwork not shown in case you were wondering). Gardeners do get in touch with the botanical description of this particular variety. Scissors on the back do lend a clue, though, to some of the sonic finessing, no actual tape and snippers involved, but a suitable battery of digital studio software. This though is not a barrier and wouldn’t even prevent Rise coming off well live as the compositions although open ended feel solid enough to play in a live format. It does come across like a more in-your-face version of the approach of someone like post-Khmer Nils Petter Molvaer particularly so on ‘Marble Faces.’ 

      

The femme fatale vocals (particularly On ‘Reject the Rhapsody’) add a slightly disturbing edge to the direction of the playing in keeping with one of the characters in the story the band takes its name from and tunes are more industrial than say what Bob Belden is doing. The title track has a kind of updated downtempo feel with the matter-of-fact voice of Nygård-Pearson a feature on some but not all tracks. Intriguing. 

Stephen Graham

Updated: with 19 October launch night photo taken at the F-IRE Festival in Pizza Express Jazz Club, above, following the official CD and vinyl release on 8 October subsequently confirmed

 

Barb Jungr
Stockport to Memphis
Naim jazz ****
People who like and even love jazz, despite what a few purists think, actually like other music “as well as" the word with four letters rather than, in curmudgeon-speak, “instead of" it, as if they’re giving up being a member of a club that they don’t actually have to be a member of in the first place. Well, Barb Jungr is a singer who many jazz people really like and work with, and it’s not at all surprising as there is an integrity, musicality and liveliness about what she does although she couldn’t really be called a jazz singer, her music just runs parallel to it. She can take the odd wrong turn though and I personally did not warm much to her Dylan or Elvis albums, but completely agree that her forte is in chanson or related material of which she is a subtle and knowledgeable interpreter. Certainly, she has a strong reputation in this area, but her eclecticism I suppose means that people who like her approach dip in and out depending on the angle she chooses for her latest project.

Produced by pianist Simon Wallace who also performs on the album and a collective personnel of Rod Youngs on drums, Neville Malcolm double bass, Jenny Carr, piano, Natalie Rozario cello, backing vocals from Mari Wilson,
Ian Shaw and Sarah Moule, Gary Hammond percussion, Mark Armstrong trumpet, and Roddy Matthews guitar, there is a broad selection of well known songs presented here with five originals Barb has co-written, including the title track partly referencing the town she grew up in, although the Memphis bit is a little more complicated but all is explained in the title song. These days when it’s fashionable for singers to project at the tops of their voices it’s refreshing to hear a singer who doesn’t sing as if she’s yelling to quell the racket all the drinkers at the bar might be making. OK, the downside might be it can be too cosy, but that’s not really Jungr’s way. ‘River’ for instance is very unJoni-like, and sometimes on whatever the material she chooses the approach of someone like Sandy Denny springs to mind instead as a sort of benign presence. Jungr’s strength is the way she narrates a song, gently leading you in for a fulfilling dialogue in song, maybe involving, maybe not; autobiographical perhaps, like ‘New Life’, or more out on a limb as on the passionate ‘Fisherman’s Blues’, the best cover song on the album for me because of the light and shade, and the way she loses herself in the material. Other songs include Neil Young’s ‘Old Man’, Dylan’s ‘Lay Lady Lay’, Hank Williams’ ‘Lost on the River’, but it’s the new songs that are interesting as well, particularly ‘Urban Fox’, a wonderful metaphorical lyric, and quietly dark with it. A great late-night listen. Stephen Graham

Barb Jungr continues at the Hippodrome, Leicester Square in London on Friday and Saturday. Stockport to Memphis is released on 22 October

Tom Gibbs
Fear of Flying

Whirlwind ***

The title of this enjoyable record refers to pianist Tom Gibbs’ recently acquired nervousness about taking to the skies on a plane ride, that’s what becoming a father he says did to him. Being a dad also inspired the two-part second track here named after his daughter. Family man Gibbs is with the much touted sax player Will Vinson, bassist Euan Burton, and Kit Downes Golden Trio stalwart James Maddren. It’s highly proficient, likeable, and at the melodic end of the spectrum, although there is plenty of improvising going on. What is distinctive is the sincerity at work, the characterful soprano saxophone lines in particular from Vinson, Maddren keeping the pot boiling and I really liked the bass solo on ‘A Little Something’. Great title, that track, even better solo, a kind of sub-plot to the main tune. Glasgow-based Gibbs, who was mentored by John Taylor at York university, is certainly worth keeping an eye out for at a jazz club near you. He is his own man, although like so many he owes a small debt to Brad Mehldau, who is fairly indirectly referred to at the beginning of ‘The Smile That Never Forgets’, when Euan Burton channelling Larry Grenadier bounces Gibbs into a friendly familiar riff that allows Vinson scope later. The later track puntastically called ‘Daily Brad’ is possibly up Mehldau’s alley some more as well. You don’t have to be a Sherlock Holmes to work these things out, although maybe the track is a homage to that fine guitarist Brad Shepik or a Hieronymous Brad with unknowable and mysterious merit. Gibbs is worth hearing, so watch the local papers or online for news of Gibbs’ next gig. Going to hear him on this evidence is definitely preferable to walking the dog, watching TV, or playing darts down your local, apparently a growing pastime in some parts, and this record similarly hits the bullseye in its own sweet way.

Stephen Graham

Released on 15 October

One of the most admired and respected pianists in UK jazz history, an influence on a young generation of international musicians as well as the possessor of a healthy critical reputation around the world based on quality and his musical vision, John Taylor turns 70 today. Since the late-1960s Taylor has been a leading fixture on the international jazz scene as a player, bandleader, recording artist and educator. Emerging initially alongside such players as tenor saxophonist Alan Skidmore, the Manchester-born pianist whose style has a still self-completeness to it, English, yet of no country, cerebral at times, but with a warmth that draws people in. A new generation of players, including young award winning pianist John Turville have been favourably compared to Taylor, and it’s extraordinary to think that a band such as Meadow came together because of the path finding Norwegian drummer Thomas Strønen’s desire to work and play with Taylor in the first place. A generation of British players from the Loose Tubes school in the 1980s (he’s on Julian Arguelles’ album Phaedrus, for instance) to the current generation emerging from music colleges up and down the country has turned to Taylor’s music becoming aware of the sheer distinctiveness of his approach, with its roots in the style of Bill Evans perhaps as well as classical music and English traditions from choral music to the avant garde, and not forgetting the personalised innovations and style of a pianist few would hesitate to comfortably ignore. In the 1970s, with Kenny Wheeler and Norma Winstone, Taylor was involved in the ensemble most associated with his name, Azimuth, one of the most influential instrumental/vocals groupings (sometimes referred to, in terms of the vocals, as “wordless") to have come out of England throughout the 90-odd years jazz has been played here. Taylor by that time was working for ECM, the label that has defined large chunks of his career, along with the Italian Camjazz label more recently, and he went on to record many albums with a range of leading artists that has included Jan Garbarek and Enrico Rava. With Wheeler, for instance, hear Taylor on the sumptuous The Widow in the Window, but his own albums have left their own indelible footprints on jazz, and landmarks along the way have included the the languidly enigmatic Ambleside Days an early-1990s duo album with John Surman that once more consolidated his reputation as a fine interpreter, but also as a composer of note. His recent trio with Martin France and Palle Danielsson has picked up plaudits from a new generation coming to his music perhaps for the first time especially on such albums as Angel of the Presence, a landmark of European jazz past, present and in all likelihood, future. Stephen Graham

John Taylor pictured above