One of the classiest guitarists and singers around, Matt Backer crops up in all sorts of people’s bands and on their records, most notably in recent years with Rumer on the superb Seasons of my Soul, and he’s currently touring with the Radio 2 A-playlisted Ethio-Swedish singer Emilia Mitiku.
But Backer doesn’t often release his own records, and the possibly ironically-titled Idle Hands is that bit more special for this reason.
His last album The Impulse Man came out in 2006 and picked up plenty of airplay in the States, but it was five years on from Is That All? So following a certain pattern here comes this one, with Julian Lennon joining the London-based American on the stirring ‘All That You’ve Wanted’, the fourth track here.
Martin Fry of ABC, who performed with Backer’s band at a rollicking Blues Kitchen gig in Camden at the tail end of last year, is also featured on the likeable Radio 2-friendly ‘Halfway To Jessica’ complete with a slab of standout Shadows-like shuddering bass.
But the album begins on a different tack with the Steely Dan-esque ‘Let’s Art’ and ‘Freak Patrol’, so there’s plenty of variety at work with Backer even unashamedly garage rock-inclined at times with a bluesy tinge on ‘I’m No Fool.’ A welcome return from a fine player who really should be better known under his own name.
Released by Right Recordings through Nova. Out now.
Playing in the foyer must be one of the hardest things an artist has to do.
Just looking around before Emilia Mårtensson and Barry Green took to the Box Office stage in the foyer of Kings Place at the annual Kings Place festival it’s as if there’s a riot in leisure going on. At the back there’s the candy store; over near some of the quietest escalators in London the regular café; and dotted about are simply dozens and dozens of people sitting, chatting, waiting to be entertained for free. Little kids before the duo came on were dancing to the re-imagined Brahms of a clarinet ‘taverna’ quintet, someone was grappling with a skateboard, don’t ask, and a steward was loading a bicycle into a lift.
But for Swedish singer Mårtensson and London pianist Green playing songs from their excellent Babel album And So It Goes they could have been in a library. Nothing would have fazed this pair. There was nothing subliminal in the opening song, Jacques Brel’s ‘If You Go Away’, or was there?
The audience to their credit began to listen after a while, and the din of excited and muffled chat, tinkling cups, and tumbling tots died down to at best a dull roar. Mårtensson tall, with long fair tresses and an imposing physique has a surprisingly quiet voice with plenty of light and shade to it not at all sung full gale at you, and the outcome was mellow but not in a Heart Radio sense. Green is an ideal accompanist who has a sensitivity to the gestures and cadences of singers as different as say show singer Claudia Morris as he is to the more left-field Mårtensson. In a purely instrumental setting, for instance with bop legend Charles McPherson, he can come over all Kenny Drew-like, remember that great master? But here he took a little run here and there although he didn’t really have to: it was enough to enjoy the voicings and resolutions.The foyer, no matter how plush, and Kings Place’s is exceedingly plush and beautiful, is a place no one wants to play, but everyone wants to congregate in. Mårtensson and Green gave it a great go, but please Mr Promoter put them on a stage that better suits their talents next time.
The pair, pictured above, play another foyer, at the Southbank Centre on the 28th; and the opening night of the London Jazz Festival on 9 November, at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho
Heart of the Matter
His fourth album as a leader for ACT, Haffner is an award-winning first call jazz drummer in Germany, and has played with a host of leading artists including Pat Metheny, Chaka Khan, Nils Landgren and Lars Danielsson. It’s a classy album for sure with a slick electric band that includes Sting guitarist Dominic Miller. Mostly Haffner tunes, Heart of the Matter is a little in the Pat Metheny Group vein at times, and manages to be highly polished without becoming too cloying. Not sure about the decision to include a cover of Lionel Ritchie’s ‘Hello’ although it’s pleasant enough. I think the Haffner tunes stand up well enough to make the case for an all-originals album next time.
Released in late-October/early November
Chaos Collective ****
Much talked about on the London jazz underground grapevine for the past year or so trumpeter Jurd (above) was only 21 when she recorded this album in May, and it’s astonishingly cohesive and rewarding. All the music is her own arranged for a quartet plus the strings of the formidably plangent Ligeti Quartet, which features Basquiat cellist Ben Davis and fine violinist Mandhira de Saram, who with the Mount Molehill Strings plays on the Neil Cowley Trio record The Face of Mount Molehill. At times Jurd’s sound possibly recalls long-ago Kenny Wheeler themes and maybe as the album progresses Dave Douglas, but sometimes there’s no clear reference point at all, usually a good sign. It’s very much a confident, engaging and stimulating approach characterised by a Nordic feel along the way. An excellent debut.
Released on 5 November
Cinéma El Mundo
World Village ****
Oh this is just great, and not just because Robert Wyatt crops up along the way. Lo’Jo, from Angers, have been round the block a bit with many albums under their belt already and so you’re in safe hands here. Funky, a mix of sounds, with a bit of chanson and dub Denis Péan’s voice is endearing as are the backing vocals of Nadia Nid El Mourid and Yamina Nid El Mourid. Open ended, socially conscious, and unpretentious, it’s no wonder they’re festival favourites in world-music land, and very jazz-friendly as well. ‘Tout est Fragile’ is the pick of the tunes but there are lots of good ones to dip into.
Released on 24 September
My History of Jazz
Fascinatingly personal, Finnish pianist Rantala says “my entire history in music can be heard on this album", beginning with his encountering the music of Bach at just six, hence the presence of five improvisations on the Goldberg Variations at the core of this often sprightly mainstream album. Recorded in April, June and as recently as July in Sweden, Berlin and Montreux respectively, Rantala’s ‘journey’ via Bach takes in Kurt Weill, Monk, Gershwin, Juan Tizol, and Lars Gullin plus his own tunes. There is plenty of spirit, and good interplay with the band of Danish drummer Morten Lund, the supremely melodic Swedish bassist Lars Danielsson, and Polish violinist Adam Baldych. Rantala’s indomitable zest for a good improvisational break always stands out.
Released in late-October/early-November
Penguin Cafe ***
A piano/dulcitone/Rhodes/harmonium-violin duo no less with Arthur Jeffes of Penguin Café Orchestra renown and violinist Oli Langford providing a cornucopia of minimalist delights and little moments scattered about that imprint themselves in your head gently and quite beautifully at times. I liked ‘Both Hands in Pockets’ best, which extraordinarily, according to Jeffes’ notes, “uses a rock which we found can be made to sing." Worth seeking out; clearly every dog (and the odd boulder) has its day.
It’s got a rhythm about it, soft little syllables that trip off the tongue, and that part of the name that makes you think instinctively, if a bit waywardly, of hippies. Yes, it’s the Tampere Jazz Happening, and its programme for this year has just been announced. And this year the festival has been chosen as festival of the year by the Finland Festivals organisation who promote festivals all over this fascinating jazz-mad country. The happening is based in just two venues, in the Finnish industrial city north-west of Helsinki, a less rainy, more snowy version of Manchester.
The venues are just across the square from one another, a stone’s throw from the city’s train station. One of these is pretty small, a little restaurant with a hothouse atmosphere, not surprising perhaps as there is a sauna elsewhere in the building. But, as it’s Finland, that’s maybe not that unusual. The other is a medium sized concert hall with a club space attached. Tampere has a reputation for being “cutting edge", but that’s slightly deceptive as its remit is very wide within creative music, and it’s not a small area of whatever that trickily serrated genre actually is. The Happening is just a great festival over a weekend that usually includes a local holiday, and if you want to escape the UK in early-November you’ll have a whale of a time. Acts this year include just one UK representative, the go-ahead prog-y firestarters WorldService Project, who presented a great festival called Match & Fuse in London earlier in the year, and will be be touring in the UK soon with the highly promising Norwegian outfit, Pixel.
The Tampere line-up for 2012 has a mix of the best new local and international names and some big stars. As well as WorldService Project, there’s Actuum, who made a big impression at the 12 Points festival in Portugal earlier this year, Big Blue, Gerry Hemingway Quintet, Vijay Iyer Trio, Ibrahim Maalouf, Jorma Tapio and Kaski, Slo Motive, Black Motor and Mikko Innanen, Boban and Marko Markovic Orchestra and DJ Borzin, Schneeweiss und Rosenrot, Hasse Poulsen’s Progressive Patriots, Sha’s Feckel, Adam Rudolph’s Moving Pictures Octet, The Jazz Passengers Reunited, Peter Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet, Mopo, Rakka, Fredator, Ebo Taylor and The Afrobeat Academy plus DJ Bilongo, Han Bennink and Aki Takase, Mark Solborg Trio featuring Herb Robertson, Lotte Anker and Mikko Innanen, John Scofield Trio featuring Steve Swallow and Bill Stewart, and finally Adam Rudolph & Go: Organic Orchestra. (SG)
The Tampere Jazz Happening runs from 1-4 November. http://www.tamperemusicfestivals.fi/jazz/en/
WorldService Project pictured (photo: Philip Ower)
It’s always an event and a sense of occasion when Courtney Pine releases an album. And House of Legends, the saxophonist’s latest, is no different.
There is a chameleon-like trajectory to Pine’s career with huge stylistic shifts in recent years but the new album to be released on Destin-e World Records on 15 October is a return to the Caribbean, although very different to earlier albums such as the reggae-based Closer To Home.
In this the 50th year since Jamaica gained independence from Britain Pine intends this album to be a pan-Caribbean exploration, and playing soprano saxophone rather than bass clarinet on recent albums he tackles merengue, ska, mento and calypso on House of Legends with a different band as well. For instance, in comes French Martinique pianist Mario Canonge, in also comes Ghanaian bassist Miles Danso, Jazz Jamaica drummer Rod Youngs, and stalwart guitarist Cameron Pierre is back in the fold once more. Look out for Jamaican legend Rico, flautist Michael Bammi Rose and trumpeter Eddie Tan Tan Thornton guesting, and many more great players on the record including pianist Mervyn Africa, steel pan player Annise Hadeed, guitarists Lucky Ranku and Dominic Grant, trombonist Trevor Edwards, trumpeter Mark Crown, flugel player Claude Deppa, Robert Fordjour on the unusual cajon-like dube invented by footballer Dion Dublin, and a string quartet.
The first track, ‘The Tale of Stephen Lawrence’, is Courtney’s conscious meditation on the racist murder of the London teenager Stephen Lawrence in the 1990s. I well remember at the open air Jazz on a Summer’s Day festival in Alexandra Palace in 1993 not long after Lawrence was killed Courtney speaking out about the murder from the stage. He was one of the first artists to do so.
Later tracks move to the music and culture of the Caribbean, first to Jamaica on ‘Kingstonian Swing’, then on ‘Liamuiga (Cook Up)’ to Saint Kitts and Nevis and the world of the Carib Indians. Courtney organised a competition with the help of a local radio DJ in St Kitts and Nevis to rename this track and this is what local person Wallis Wilin came up with.
‘House of Hutch’, the fourth track is about Grenada singer pianist Leslie ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson, not the better known Jiver Hutchinson, but the man who became a popular entertainer and moved in high society during the war, and who sang a bit like Ivor Novello. ‘Ca C’est Bon Ca’ is the Dominican part of the album, a lovely romantic dance tune in a style the French call “zouk love", which Courtney dedicates to his wife.
Notting Hill carnival founder Claudia Jones is celebrated on the sixth track, bearing her name, and ‘Song of The Maroons’ takes on a further historic Caribbean dimension with its referencing of Cimarron runaway slaves, while companion piece ‘Samuel Sharpe’ is about a slave who became a preacher later to organise the Christmas Rebellion in 1831 in Jamaica. Courtney also on the album explores the oral tradition of passing on acquired knowledge on ‘From the Father to the Son’ and says in the notes: “As a jazz musician I have been fortunate to have shared moments with many great teachers. I could not do what I am doing without their guidance." The final official track is ‘Ma-Di-Ba’ dedicated to Nelson Mandela, and the bonus track is the infectious choro ‘Tico Tico’ written by Zequinha de Abreu, which is a superb way to end this fine record, the only non-original, with all the other tunes written by Courtney Pine. The album is dedicated to Harry Beckett and Andy Hamilton MBE. Courtney launches the record at Islington Assembly Halls in London on 19 October with his band. It promises to be quite a night.
Courtney Pine pictured top
Back in 1980 when there actually still was a country called Yugoslavia, Georgie Fame was invited there for the first time to sing with a local big band. The bass player from that outfit, Mario Mavrin, turns up on this record of a dozen tunes, Fame explains in the notes to brand new album Lost In a Lover’s Dream released on Fame’s own label Three Line Whip, as does quietly accomplished Slovenian guitarist Primož Grašič who Fame also knows from his visits to the Balkans.
Fame clearly relished playing at the Bosko Petrovic Jazz Club in Zagreb, and this album was recorded not in Croatia but Slovenia earlier this year, clearly a memento of happy days all these years on.
Opening with Amen Corner founder Andy Fairweather-Low’s tongue-in-cheek ‘Wide-Eyed and Legless’, Fame, who only sings on the album, there isn’t an organ in sight Hammond or otherwise and no drums either, is on insightfully tender form on ‘My Foolish Heart’ and customarily wry on ‘Sking Blues.’
There are a number of Fame originals including ‘Say When’, ‘Singing Horn’, ‘How Blue’ and the title track itself, and the abiding impression throughout is of Fame sounding as if he’s enjoying himself. It’s a stress-free set of comfortable but rewarding songs, with Fame singing his heart out displaying tremendous artistry and that tone, that style no one can replicate. It’s also tinged with a little sadness at times especially on the rather beautiful vocal on ‘Singing Horn.’
Fame fans starved of a new album for a little while will love this record I’m sure. Out of the blue it may be, but it’s great to have an album as good as this just showing up unannounced. Stephen Graham
Released on 8 October. Georgie Fame pictured top tours in November. Dates are: The Grand, Clitheroe (7 Nov); The Platform, Morecambe (8 Nov); Buccleugh Arts Centre, Carlisle (9 Nov); R&B Club, Mickleton (10 Nov); Floral Hall, New Brighton (11 Nov); Subscription Rooms, Stroud (13 Nov); Millfield Theatre, Edmonton (14 Nov); Ropetackle, Shoreham by Sea (15 Nov); Capitol, Horsham (16 Nov); Gulbenkian, Canterbury (17 Nov); The Globe, Cardiff (19 Nov); Palace Theatre, Paignton (20 Nov); Electric Palace, Bridport (21 Nov); Cheese and Grain, Frome (22 Nov); and Sturmer Hall, Haverhill (24 Nov).
It’s the biggest ever London Jazz Festival this year, very possibly the biggest the country has ever seen, held at dozens of venues across the capital. Tonight the full printed programme is released at a reception in Kings Cross and as well as new stars in the making this year as ever, there is also a great range of European acts, a vibrant club programme, and the biggest names in international jazz including Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, Brad Mehldau, Esperanza Spalding, John McLaughlin, and Jan Garbarek at venues all over London including the Royal Festival Hall, Barbican, Kings Place, Ronnie Scott’s, the Vortex, Pizza Express Jazz Club, Hideaway, the Forge, Arts Depot, and St James’ Piccadilly. If you’re thinking of making the most of the festival across the capital here are some highlights in store to whet your appetite, but do check out the full programme and the festival’s website as there is a huge amount of jazz taking place for 2012 across the 10 days not to mention many talks and family-friendly events as well.
Friday 9 November
New star Ambrose Akinmusire Quintet, Queen Elizabeth Hall
The new Europe Amira and Bojan Z, Artsdepot
Club gig Emilia Mårtensson and pianist Barry Green, Pizza Express Jazz Club
Pick of the day Robert Glasper Experiment and Phantom Limb,
Royal Festival Hall
New star Femi Temowo and Elisa Caleb, The Forge
The new Europe Oddarrang, South Bank Centre
Club gig Makoto Meets Lakatos, Pizza Express Jazz Club
Pick of the day Matthew Shipp Trio, Vortex
New star Beats & Pieces + Ensemble Denada, Purcell Room
The new Europe Black Motor + Rakka+ Kuara+Anna-Mari Kaharan Orkesteri, Barbican freestage
Club gig Randolph Matthews, The Forge
Pick of the day John McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension, Barbican
New star Josh Arcoleo, the Forge
The new Europe Michael Wollny + Iiro Rantala With Adam Baldych, St James’ Piccadilly
Club gig Ravi Coltrane, Ronnie Scott’s
Pick of the day Herbie Hancock, Royal Festival Hall
New star Shabaka Hutchings and the BBC Concert Orchestra, Queen Elizabeth Hall
The new Europe Carminho, Purcell Room
Club gig Kit Downes Quintet and Barbacana, Vortex
Pick of the day Jan Garbarek group with Trilok Gurtu, Royal Festival Hall
New star Emma Smith, St James’ Piccadilly
The new Europe DPZ Quintet, Barbican freestage
Club gig Tammy Weis, The Pheasantry
Pick of the day Brad Mehldau Trio, Barbican
New star Trish Clowes, St James’ Piccadilly
The new Europe Nicholas Simion Group, Rich Mix
Club gig Dee Dee Bridgewater, Ronnie Scott’s
Pick of the day Esperanza Spalding, Royal Festival Hall
New star Sid Peacock Surge, Barbican freestage
The new Europe Open Souls + Circle Of Sound, Purcell Room
Club gig Lonnie Liston Smith, Hideaway
Pick of the day Sonny Rollins, Barbican
New star Tommy Evans Orchestra, Barbican freestage
The new Europe Leszek Mozdzer + Radio.String.Quartet.Vienna, St James’ Piccadilly
Club gig Charles McPherson, Pizza Express Jazz Club
Pick of the day Chick Corea (right) / Christian McBride / Brian Blade, Barbican
New star Stuart McCallum, the Forge
The new Europe Supersilent feat John Paul Jones, Village Underground
Club gig Liane Carroll, Hideaway
Pick of the day David Murray Big Band and Macy Gray, Barbican
Herbie Hancock top appearing on Monday 12 November at the Royal Festival Hall as part of this year’s London Jazz Festival held in association with BBC Radio 3
She’s a one off. She’s celebrating 50 years in the music business as a performer and she’s back. But you’ll have to wait to 1 October for Thankful N’ Thoughtful by the great Detroit singer Bettye LaVette, She’s also written an autobiography with David Ritz, the writer who has produced such compelling if controversially raw books on Marvin Gaye and Jimmy Scott.
Like Scott, Bettye LaVette has had more than her fair share of ups and downs over the years and was a star and then wasn’t, then kind of became one again for a variety of reasons which the book goes into gripping detail about. I didn’t care much for her last album Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook which for me laboured the point a bit, but the new record is different.
Coming well ahead of a Jazz Cafe date in London on 11 December as part of a European tour to support the release Thankful was produced by Craig Street, the producer who turned Cassandra Wilson’s career right round in the 1990s when he worked with the Mississipian on the superb Blue Light Til Dawn on which Wilson moved beyond her comfort zone for the first time.
LaVette because of the nature of the kind of R&B she thrives on (roughly Tina Turner land) maybe didn’t have to make such a leap with Street, and as she dips in and out of different styles gives each of them her own emotively compelling life force. The tracks are a mix bag of tunes and on early listens I have been hitting replay on Dylan’s ‘Everything is Broken’ and the left field folk singer Patty Griffin’s song ‘Time Will Do The Talking’ which is just stunning. But there are plenty of other goodies including material by the Black Keys, Tom Waits and Neil Young, and LaVette manages even to breathe new life into Gnarls Barkley’s done-to-death ‘Crazy’, in itself a neat trick. LaVette’s band on the record is Chris Bruce, guitar; Jonathan Wilson guitar, banjo; Glenn Patscha, piano, keys; Jennifer Condos, bass; JJ Johnson, drums, percussion; Steven Bernstein of Sex Mob on ‘Yesterday Is Here’; and Douglas Wieselman, reeds on the same track.
Just ahead of the album release LaVette’s autobiography, A Woman Like Me is published on 27 September.
Bettye LaVette pictured top. Photo: Marina Chavez
There’s been a recent debate on a few websites spurred on in part by Ethan Iverson’s comments on the value or otherwise of high profile contests and prizes with comments flying across the Internet for and against. I suppose the same will happen here in the UK once this year’s MOBO and Mercury award nominations are announced over the next few weeks. In some ways it’s more about the nominations, and the furore, if there is any, dies down when the winners are announced.
This year the Mercury announcement has been delayed partly because of the Olympics taking over, so nominations which are usually held in July are happening this month instead, with the winner announced in November.
Last year one of the bands that was hotly tipped to be Mercury annointed, the very fine Kairos 4tet, got nada but actually went on to win the MOBO for best jazz act, while the Mercury nom itself went to Gwilym Simcock for his airy but formidable Schloss Elmau solo piano album recorded, as you do, at a spa retreat in Bavaria.
Simcock this year has been touring with Anglo-American band The Impossible Gentlemen out of contention and with Lighthouse, definitely in with a chance, and if Lighthouse have been entered they’ll surely take up some of the judges’ chin scratching time as their own album (it’s Simcock with saxophonist Tim Garland and Asaf Sirkis) was one of the standout releases of the year for many. Portico Quartet, who were nominated for an earlier album changed tack this year to release a more electronica-oriented album, so don’t rule them out for the Mercury in this new guise, surely a prime candidate for a band that has changed dramatically from its jazz roots. Another outfit, which features former Jade Fox scenester David Okumu and Polar Bear’s Tom Herbert, The Invisible, has also moved well away from early influences and may get nominated but not in the “token jazz” spot, as they inhabit a trusted patch of indie-land.
While 2012 has seen few obvious jazz acts build such a consensus around them to make their appeal so blindingly obvious they’ll just stroll up for a Mercury or MOBO, other bands surely in consideration must be Roller Trio (if they’ve been entered like all of these mentioned I hasten to caution), Phronesis, if the rules allow them entry, Troyka, trioVD, Neil Cowley Trio for The Face of Mount Molehill, Get The Blessing for OCDC, Django Bates, Zara McFarlane, Josh Arcoleo, Partikel, World Service Project, Arun Ghosh, Beats and Pieces, a rare big band possible, Alexander Hawkins, Julian Joseph, Stuart McCallum, John Surman for Saltash Bells, and Trio Libero, if the rules allow the band on the tip sheet. Black Top (Pat Thomas, Steve Williamson and Orphy Robinson) have still to record so maybe they’re one to watch for next year as are Sons of Kemet. Dice Factory have made their presence felt with their self titled debut but that’s a late entrant, and Courtney Pine’s House of Legends while not released yet may have been entered if it met the Mercury and MOBO deadlines. Ivo Neame’s Yatra might be too late as well but if not it’s in with a shout. Both Ian Shaw and Claire Martin have released strong vocal records and Matthew Bourne’s Montauk Variations would be a great left field choice, and at its polar opposite young crooner Alexander Stewart made a good showing with his take on the Smiths on his debut album.
So it will be interesting to see who gets the nod. It could even be none of the above. In recent years it’s been pianists all the way with Simcock and Kit Downes while the MOBOs have moved away from the crossover smooth jazz of Yolanda Brown to post-bop last year. I’d like to see either Neil Cowley Trio, Get the Blessing, Matthew Bourne, or Troyka bask in the Mercury glow this year, they’d all be fine ambassadors for the music, and Zara McFarlane, Jazz Jamaica or Black Top pick up the MOBO, as the best jazz act category does not necessarily need a brand new album to guarantee inclusion.
Whoever gets it I hope they capture the wider media’s imagination so that the word can get out about the UK scene that bit more. Otherwise we’ll have to wait until the next set of awards to try to up the scene’s profile and they’re in January when Jazz FM launch their inaugural gongs.
In the running
Simcock, Garland, Sirkis Lighthouse ACT
Roller Trio Roller Trio F-IRE
Partikel Cohesion Whirlwind
Portico Quartet Portico Quartet Real World
The Invisible Rispah Ninja Tune
Get The Blessing OCDC Naim
Django Bates Confirmation Lost Marble
World Service Project Relentless Brooke
Arun Ghosh Primal Odyssey Camoci
Beats and Pieces Big Ideas Efpi
Alexander Hawkins Ensemble All There, Ever Out Babel
Julian Joseph Live at the Vortex in London ASC
Troyka Moxxy Edition
Claire Martin Too Much In Love To Care Linn
Ian Shaw A Ghost In Every Bar Splashpoint
Zara McFarlane Until Tomorrow Brownswood
Sheppard, Benita, Rochford Trio Libero ECM
Stuart McCallum Distilled Naim
Dice Factory Dice Factory Babel
Ivo Neame Yatra Edition
Matthew Bourne Montauk Variations Leaf
Alexander Stewart All Or Nothing At All Alexander Stewart Music
Neil Cowley Trio The Face of Mount Molehill Naim
Get the Blessing: will they bag an award? Pictured top, and Zara McFarlane, above
This time last year The Face of Mount Molehill was just a twinkle in the eye, in that vacuum between advance copy and release and no one really apart from the band and their nearest and dearest had actually heard the record.
Molehill, released at the start of 2012 in that funny old world when the London Olympics hadn’t actually taken place and the capital was even then still reeling from the previous summer’s riots, has since gone on to become the biggest selling new UK jazz release of the year so far with more than 8,000 copies sold and climbing. That’s pretty unlikely to be beaten by any other jazz release, even though it’s still only September.
But before the end of the year wheels around once more the trio is rehearsing ahead of an autumn tour in the States, and then back in Blighty with the Goldsmiths (Big) Strings on 17 November plays an unsual London Jazz Festival afternoon show at the Barbican, a “never-been-done-before project", says the venue, which involves the trio along with Molehill violinist/arranger Julian Ferraretto challenging a hand picked 30-piece ‘big strings’ orchestra to play by ear instead of from notation music from The Face of Mount Molehill plus new tunes specially written.
Last year at the London Jazz Festival, the complete programme of which for this year is announced next week but which features already such flagged-up luminaries as Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, Brad Mehldau and Kurt Elling in the festival’s biggest ever incarnation fittingly in its 20th anniversary year, the Neil Cowley Trio played a midnight gig at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho, the album’s producer Dom Monks (who engineered on Coldplay’s Viva La Vida) even manning the sound desk.
That night it was a chance to hear the album in a relaxed setting as the NCT kicked right in after soundchecking in front of an audience made up of Facebook friends, musicians and gig-goers who had made their way over from other London Jazz Festival venues that night. They began with ‘Rooster Was A Witness’ and the hum of feedback still ringing in their ears, pianist Cowley also doubling on Nord keyboards; new recruit Aussie indie rocker Rex Horan (Mama’s Gun) on double bass; the trio’s long standing and original drummer Evan Jenkins; and the Mount Molehill Strings squeezed decorously in the rear of the compact bandstand of the Dean Street basement club demonstrating a certain amount of ingenuity in running through the material with Cowley in the tiny breaks between songs bantering with the audience, the desk, and the band. The band settled on the highly effective ‘Skies Are Rare’ and by ‘Fable’ started to rock. Cowley got into the zone headbanging away on the Steinway, with minimalist lines, fast breakout improvising and resolved melodic flourishes, while on the title track of the album the strings came into their own.
The classical players who will come head to head with the Neil Cowley Trio at the Barbican at this year’s London Jazz Festival may not know quite what’s hit them. One thing’s for sure with this trio, as the record has also shown and as the public continues to snap it up, jazz has never quite sounded the same before.
Neil Cowley Trio top and the cover of The Face of Mount Molehill. US dates are: Iridium, New York (11 October); Wexner Center, Columbus, Ohio (13 Oct); Franklin Theatre, Nashville (14 Oct); Yoshi’s, Oakland, California (15 Oct); and The Mint, Los Angeles (16 Oct).