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A white light moment led journalist Rob Adams to not just write about Venezuelan jazz musician Leo Blanco but inspired him to put together a major tour by the pianist and even dream up the name of Blanco’s latest album

The Bank of Scotland Herald Angels awards ceremony isn’t a gig as such. Presented every Saturday morning during Edinburgh’s month-long festival season in August, these awards reward outstanding performances and contributions in music, theatre, visual art, literature and indeed right across the arts spectrum as judged by the reviewing team of Scotland’s leading quality daily newspaper, The Herald. It’s become the norm for one of the musical recipients to “do a number” as a gesture of thanks and to entertain the assembled artists and their representatives.

So it was that, on the final Angels Saturday in 2006, Leo Blanco sat down to play a piano that, shall we say, wouldn’t have been the best instrument that he’d ever encountered. The sound he created nevertheless caused jaws to drop and people to ask who this master musician was, where he had come from and why he wasn’t a major star. And this wasn’t an easily impressed audience: Leo’s fellow Angel winners that day were almost all drawn from the Edinburgh International Festival’s world class programme.

I’ve wondered about Leo’s lack of major star status many times myself since then. Like many musicians, he could have done with having just a little of Jaco Pastorius’s infamous “I’m the best and I ain’t braggin’” self-promotion chutzpah in his make-up, although he’s not exactly shy. There’s also the fact that as a professor of piano at Berklee School of Music, Leo spends more time sending budding musicians on their way in their careers than he devotes to his own at times.

Speak to some of those who have benefited from his guidance – the inaugural Young Scottish Jazz Musician of the Year, pianist Alan Benzie, is one – and they’ll tell you that Leo’s a monster musician and hugely inspirational. The children in Caracas whom Leo has taught through the El Sistema music education regime would no doubt agree about his inspirational qualities and the classical musicians who have taken the improvisation module that he devised for El Sistema and that has now been taken up across the US will add to the psalms of praise. As will the players who have brought his compositions off the page, including the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, who commissioned Leo’s End of Amazonia, and horn quartet Brass Jaw.

The piece Leo played that morning of the Angels presentation, ‘El Negro y el Blanco’, was a fantasia based on ‘El Negro Jose’, a popular composition by Leo’s fellow Venezuelan, Aldemaro Romero, that appeared on Leo’s first album, Roots & Effect. It contained a lot of the characteristics you’ll hear when Leo undertakes his first extensive UK tour this summer in a series of solo concerts: brilliant imagination, gorgeous melodic touches and mighty bass-end grooves. Its performance that day could even be said to have triggered the tour.

Leo and I had been introduced a week or two previously, just before a Chick Corea concert at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh, by the Scottish saxophonist Laura Macdonald, a friend of Leo’s from her time at Berklee. “You’ve got to come and hear him – he’s playing some gigs with me on the Fringe,” Laura told me. I complied and within about 5 minutes of their first number on their opening night, I was texting the arts editor of The Herald, advising him to get himself down to the Lot, a compact venue in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket that’s no longer with us. I may not have said “get yourself down here” exactly in that text message but that was the gist of it.

The result was the aforementioned Angel award and a cyberspace friendship between Leo and me that would, the following spring, lead to him producing one of these evenings where everyone’s pinching themselves to make sure they’re not dreaming as the sound of world class music making from an ad hoc quartet filled the Blue Lamp, a natural jazz club masquerading as a city centre pub, during Aberdeen Jazz Festival 2007. The Lampie, as it’s affectionately known, wasn’t just jumpin’, as in full of people, it was dancing.

Several attempts to recreate that night in Scotland and in other parts of Europe have been made but, alas, never come to fruition. Cut to February of this year, however, when a chance remark I made to Jill Rodger of Glasgow Jazz Festival led to another of flurry of emails between Leo and me. Would Leo fancy playing a solo piano concert in Glasgow? Some combination of solo piano and various collaborations had come up in our cyberspace exchanges previously and while I had every confidence in Leo putting a solo programme together, I had no idea that he’d already recorded a solo piano concert and was planning to release it on CD.

The upshot is that I’ve become a booking agent for Leo in between writing assignments for my day job as a journalist. Four Scottish dates were added to the Glasgow Jazz Festival concert and then we advanced on England – with more friendly intentions, promise, than the Scots of Braveheart and Bruce. One of the English dates, in the Quantocks, even sold out old three months in advance and we’re now looking at BBC Radio broadcasts and the UK release of Leo’s live solo piano CD, Pianoforte, to coincide with the tour.

The name “Pianoforte" was my suggestion: it’s simple and it describes the dynamic range of Leo’s music – very quiet to very strong – as well as being the name of the instrument he plays. If you think “Pianoforte"s a bit prosaic, even sober, ask Leo when he plays in the UK what the idea for the title was that he had to be dissuaded from using. (It was sort of in Latin and was briefly topical around the time of the new Pope’s election.) I’m not sure, though, that he’ll be brave enough to tell you.

Leo Blanco plays the Forge, London on 24 June; Recital Room, City Halls, Glasgow as part of the Glasgow Jazz Festival, 26 June; Blue Lamp, Aberdeen, 27 June; Queen’s Hall Edinburgh, 28 June; Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, 29 June; Carnegie Hall, Dunfermline, 30 June; Dean Clough, Halifax, 4 July; Sage, Gateshead, 5 July; Broomfield Village Hall, Broomfield, Somerset, 6 July; and the Apex, Bury St Edmunds, 10 July

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The Konrad Wiszniewski and Euan Stevenson album New Focus has been longlisted for Scottish Album of the Year (the SAY award), the equivalent of the Mercury.

It’s a prize worth £20,000 to the winner. The pair take their place on a list that includes albums by Emeli Sande, Calvin Harris, Auntie Flo, Duncan Chisholm, PAWS and Django Django.

The shortlist, the next stage in the awards process, is announced at the end of May and then the winner itself on 20 June.

New Focus released by London label Whirlwind Recordings sees saxophonist Konrad Wiszniewski (above) and pianist Euan Stevenson (below) as part of a quartet (Whirlwind label boss Michael Janisch on double bass and Scottish National Jazz Orchestra rhythm maker par excellence Alyn Cosker completing the core band on drums).

And there’s also the Glasgow String Quartet and a harpist attached, a major element of New Focus. The album has its genesis in an Edinburgh Jazz Festival Stan Getz Focus-themed concert for which Wiszniewski and Stevenson wrote new material and performed, recording this album in the studio as a result to reflect their own compositional direction with each contributing pieces included on the album.

New Focus is very accessible and melodic, and the tunes are so much stronger than you’ll hear around. It is dreamier than Getz’s master work, and is romantic in the style of a player such as say the late Tomasz Szukalski or Janusz Muniak (in terms of Wiszniewski’s playing that has classic Polish jazz roots), although Bobby Wellins’ singular style circa Under Milk Wood rings a bell as well in terms of placing Wiszniewski’s highly proficient and characterful style if you are unfamiliar with his work so far.

With Stevenson pinpointing influences is not so easy although he has been compared a little loosely to Oscar Peterson and Erroll Garner and on this album does not embrace needless grandstanding, a big plus, as he is a nuanced performer. Wiszniewski is the clear instrumental voice to cling on to, or at least his role is more obvious. The softly unfolding ‘El Paraiso’ with some quizzical saxophone and dynamic pizzicato from the strings commands close attention as the album progresses, and I very much liked Stevenson’s introduction to the following track, ‘For Ray’. Brass Jaw fans will be fascinated to hear Wiszniewski in another musical situation while Stevenson’s star will undoubtedly rise both for his writing here (for instance ‘Music for a Northern Mining Town’), and the tastefulness of his overriding approach. SG

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Vincent Peirani
Thrill Box
ACT ***1/2
Foreground or background? Well as Thrill Box is a chamber jazz record, and accordionist Peirani has a deliciously light touch, not so bravura in essence as a Richard Galliano for instance, it is music for the background to a conversation you imagine isn’t as interesting as the music performed. It’s not as self deprecating as either the title or the wallflower-like opening ‘Baïlèro’, written in the 1920s by French composer Joseph Canteloube tapping Auvergne folk music, would suggest. Crane to hear pianist Michael Wollny, fast becoming a firm favourite of the Munich label’s, and the little bass tickle of Trio Libero’s Michel Benita, a stimulating presence throughout particularly at the beginning of ‘Shenandoah’.

Tunes vary in style and range from the French player’s self-written numbers to ‘Goodnight Irene’, and Abbey Lincoln’s ‘Throw it Away’, as well as a Brad Mehldau tune ‘Waltz for JB’ among others. Peirani has been working with South Korean singer Youn Sun Nah and the guitarist Ulf Wakenius and it’s clear he has an abundance of musical vision although it’s a bit scattergun at the moment. He’s adept at installing a sense of tension on his own tune ‘Hypnotic’ and the trio tracks have a remarkable cohesion. The great French bass clarinettist Michel Portal guests tantalisingly on a few tracks even picking up a bandoneon on a homage Peirani has written to him; and watch out for the highly rated saxophonist Emile Parisien on ‘Air Song’ and violinist Alexandar Sisic’s ‘Balkanski Cocek’. Highlights? The lovely Ravel-like opening to ‘Air Song’ and the softly unfolding modal progression before Parisien makes a beautifully judged entrance. Its very eclecticism make the album hard to place: from the Auvergne to the music of Thelonious Monk is a long journey. When Peirani makes some more stopping-off points along the way as his career develops the overall picture will be a lot clearer and even more fulfilling. Stephen Graham

Vincent Peirani, above
photo: Dean Bennici / ACT

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Big apple date for Claire Martin

With the Jazzahead trade show coming up this weekend featuring a British jazz stand promoting the local scene to wider European promoters and labels, and after that the Made in the UK shows at Rochester in New York state in June with Cleveland Watkiss, YolanDa Brown, Christine Tobin, Michael Mwenso, Julian Arguelles, Soweto Kinch, Zoe Rahman, Phronesis and Gwilym Simcock all taking part this year, it’s a good time to actually look at how jazz exports itself from the UK.

Clearly these initiatives help, and regularly boost the perception and profile of UK jazz abroad. The world scene needs constantly reminding. But outside these initiatives what happens? Well, bands tour a bit if they’re picked up by local promoters confident that they can stand on their own two feet commercially and get a crowd. But it’s patchy. Sometimes a band who have strong word of mouth, say like Sons of Kemet who are playing an obscure festival in Katowice later in the month, operate independently of broader initiatives and benefit from adventurous bookers going the extra mile and taking a risk. Or if they’re long established like Courtney Pine with strong management they get booked globally for sound commercial reasons: that is they can guarantee a big crowd.

It all takes time but with a recent boost in jazz vocals in the UK artists like Claire Martin are able to get a booking in Jazz at Lincoln Center building on her New York appearance in the past while her close friend and duo partner Ian Shaw can play clubs in Canada, and the likes of instrumentalist bands the Neil Cowley Trio and Get The Blessing (partly on the back of the Made in the UK initiative) can develop their touring in America as the NCT did last year.

If there comes a time when UK jazz bands are as ubiquitous in America as say British actors in Hollywood movies are then you’ll know jazz from these shores has crossed a barrier.

That may be some time off, but with the work of Jazz Services, financial backing by UK Trade and Investment, and promoters such as ESIP and others the sheer body of evidence about the quality of the music here is a springboard to build audiences in other countries not just the States.

For some later in their careers that incubating support won’t be needed quite in the same way because an appetite for the music and its commercial standing has been established, but then it’s the new generation that can be concentrated on. But the cycle needs to be established in the first place or suddenly the old cry will go out again internationally: where’s all the British jazz, to furrowed brows and general puzzlement. Stephen Graham

Claire Martin plays Dizzy’s in New York on 13 May www.jalc.org

 

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Jeff Williams
The Listener
Whirlwind ****
Mimimal amplification isn’t something that’s much talked about. Who really cares if it’s really loud or soft? But this, in case you were wondering, is not a loud record at all although it’s not whispery-soft either and might make you a convert to ‘human scale’ recordings. It’s also highly relevant, along with some beautifully fractured dissonance and an implied “so what?” attitude, if a band like drummer Jeff Williams’ quartet finds itself within the realm of the Cool School, a sound partly identified with the lodestar of Lee Konitz. Williams, who’s on another deeply Konitzian record Always A First Time recently released goes to that softly echoing well again and again here, inevitably maybe, after performing so much with Konitz in the 1980s and 1990s.

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Williams can sound like the late Paul Motian at times but really it’s not an issue hunting down the lineage because this album more than stands on its own eight feet. Trumpeter Duane Eubanks (younger brother of silky guitar star Kevin and fine Dave Holland trombonist Robin) has a pleasantly deadpan way with falling phrases and plenty of power, and the unduly underrated but appealingly dislocated sound on alto saxophone of John O’Gallagher, who appeared with Williams in Hans Koller’s Ensemble at Kings Place earlier in the year, and rated bassist John Hébert, complete the band. Remember that remarkable record Byzantine Monkey of Hébert’s?

Anyway, The Listener knows where it lives in terms of style, which is always an advantage; and the composing is excellent working piece by piece to build the record into something special. It’s formal in terms of band discipline and yet somehow informal as the style is if you like a satire on society, an outsider’s music. Mostly the tunes are by Williams with Eubanks tune ‘Beer and Water’ opening, Hébert chipping in on ‘Fez’ which the May 2012 Vortex club audience really got, judging by the big applause, and finishing with the sentimental Saul Chaplin and Sammy Cahn standard ‘Dedicated to You.’  

Released on 4 June

Jeff Williams pictured top, and the album cover above   

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Kit Downes Quintet
Light From Old Stars

Basho ****
Really seeing stars? Possibly not as the title of pianist Downes’ latest refers to the long-held theory that the stars in the night sky have already died. Combining a variety of elements from chamber jazz signifiers in the arranging style through to free improv, on a track such as ‘Owls’, leavened by the more cinematic “road movie” conception of ‘Outlaws’, or the remoulded ‘jam’ blow-out feel of ‘What’s the Rumpus’, this is Kit Downes’ best album to date. Highlights are ‘Bley Days’, which the quintet played live on selected dates last year, Downes’ homage to the often neglected Paul Bley, and the final track is clearly named as a tribute for the lost leader of Swedish jazz, pianist Jan Johansson who died at the young age of 37 in 1968. Johansson is best known for his classic album Jazz på svenska (‘Jazz in Swedish’), which used European folk music as an ingredient for jazz improvisation, one of the first to do so. ‘Jan Johansson’ is a quietly yearning dream-like track that begins with a scamperingly laidback James Maddren rhythm, a low piano rumble, and a lovely melody line that Downes and cellist Lucy Railton state in unison before the softly unfolding melody line ascends. 
Out now. The quintet play Jazz in the Round on Monday http://thecockpit.org.uk/show/jazz_in_the_round