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.   

Stephen Graham

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. rtensson 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. 

Stephen Graham 

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  


Wolfgang Haffner

Heart of the Matter

ACT ***

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

Laura Jurd
Landing Ground
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


Lo’Jo
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


Iiro Rantala

My History of Jazz
ACT ***
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


Sundog

Insofar
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.
Out now

Stephen Graham

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.

Stephen Graham

Courtney Pine pictured top

image

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

Saturday 10

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

Sunday 11

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

Monday 12

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

Tuesday 13

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

Wednesday 14

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

Thursday 15

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

Friday 16

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

Saturday 17

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

Sunday 18

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

Stephen Graham

http://www.londonjazzfestival.org.uk

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

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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.

Stephen Graham

Bettye LaVette pictured top. Photo: Marina Chavez