The London Jazz Festival, which at last begins on Friday after one of the biggest and longest trails in its 20-year history, is not so much a snapshot of jazz in the capital, more a lingeringly long wide shot of the music. Think the famous Art Kane photograph A Great Day in Harlem magnify it from its brownstone building setting in New York, populate the shot with hundreds more musicians, and let the photographer go click on the widest pavement in London, with the widest lens imaginable, and you’ll not even get close to what’s about to take place.
Under the radar and away from the big names this year who include Herbie Hancock, Sonny Rollins, Esperanza Spalding, Robert Glasper, the Brad Mehldau Trio, Jan Garbarek, Jack DeJohnette, and so many more, there are dozens of musicians, some appearing for the first time at the festival, who have significant profile in the UK or the countries they are based. You might have to put on your hiking gear and consult the fine print of the festival programme to track them down, but there’s considerable kudos in just doing that, particularly if your friends are sticking to the tried and tested and you just want to broaden your horizons that bit more.
One of the artists who falls firmly in the worth taking the trouble category is French trumpeter and flugelhorn player Stéphane Belmondo who earlier this year, just properly available here now, released his latest typically accomplished disarmingly refreshing album The Same as it Never Was Before, a neat absurdity on the title as playfully cynical as the understated but steely playing on the album. Belmondo is playing on the Barbican free stage, a platform where during the build up to a range of evening concerts you’ll discover some similar artists either too little known in this country yet to mount concerts in bigger spaces, or being promoted as the Finns are doing, to swell interest in national scenes only concerted showcase promotion can achieve. Belmondo was an important element on Jacky Terrasson’s vibrant Gouache released earlier in the autumn and in France he has a significant following. He’s with Kirk Lightsey, Sylvain Romano and the great Billy Hart on the album with all but Hart making the trip for the LJF. Billing is relative after all, but for such a distinguished name from the French scene to appear unheralded indicates the strength in depth at the festival this year. Bojan Z at Artsdepot is another top drawer act coming in among many. This year may just be the discovery show writ large.
Stéphane Belmondo above
Playing the Forge in Camden for the first time Christine Tobin chose the occasion yesterday to perform songs from her new 2012 album Sailing to Byzantium, matching the album selections with songs by Leonard Cohen, Brooklyn poet Eva Salzman, and at the end Carole King.
With the Margate-based singer’s band of pianist Liam Noble, her accompanist on Carole King songbook album Tapestry Unravelled, bassist Dave Whitford, cellist Kate Shortt, and guitarist Phil Robson, Tobin, whose latest album sets music to the poetry of WB Yeats with spoken word contributions by the great actor Gabriel Byrne (his recorded voice an evocative early presence here on ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’), was able to channel deep to the heart of the matter in her intelligent treatment of the peerless poetry of Ireland’s national poet. ‘The Second Coming’, Tobin describing it as ‘apocalypic’, was the most dramatic interpretation of the two-set concert, although one of Tobin’s great many strengths is that she relies on close study of her texts in terms of enunciation and above all timing performing the songs with a vocal range that makes use of a great deal of flexibility in terms of tone, and understated but hugely effective communicative quality. It could be said that having heard Tobin’s vocal versions of choice poems from the Yeatsian canon returning to the source has added meaning, added light and texture such is the finely judged sensitivity Tobin brought to the project. ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz’ was quite superb, and ‘Long-Legged Fly’ with lovely little syncopated touches from Shortt a strong feature of the programme dotted with delights. Tobin is also a remarkable interpreter of the songs of Leonard Cohen, and the inclusion of a few of his songs was a strong match, and I particularly enjoyed her rendition of ‘Everybody Knows’ that drew out the humour and seriousness of the lyric. Sailing to Byzantium is a quite extraordinary album, Tobin peerless and unassailable here, Yeats clearly her métier, in Cohen’s line ‘a shining artifact of the past.’ Stephen Graham
Sailing to Byzantium is on Trail Belle records
Historic jazz label Okeh is to be revived by Sony Classical, although the first new signings are still to be announced. The US label founded by Otto K. E. Heinemann, began operations in 1918 and was later owned by Columbia. Mamie Smith produced the label’s first big hit, ‘Crazy Blues’, and Okeh recording from a studio base in Chicago later in the 1920s became synonymous with what’s now regarded as classic jazz, particularly with artists such as Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Sidney Bechet and Duke Ellington.
The label also was heavily known for its blues releases, but its name disappeared from view periodically over the years to be revived at different times, under Epic, for instance in the 1960s, recording Little Richard under the marque. More recently Sony retooled it in the 1990s as a blues label although the new initiative has jazz at its heart.
The label’s new Madrid-based A&R (artists and repertoire) executive Wulf Müller is no stranger to the UK jazz scene, and was based in London at Universal for many years. The executive, who is 57, grew up in Berlin and later studied politics and journalism at Vienna University.
At the beginning of the 1980s he became co-manager of a jazz club in Austria called Miles Smiles, a club that opened with Bill Frisell in duo with the great German bassist Eberhard Weber (known for such groundbreaking work as The Colours of Chloe and later as a member of the great Jan Garbarek Quartet).
Müller was also involved in starting a magazine called JazzLive, before going on to work as product manager for PolyGram Austria’s Import Music Service division. Later he started the Amadeo label with local Austrian jazz musicians, including releases by Karheinz Miklin, guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel, and executive-produced artists such as alto sax star Wolfgang Puschnig, known for his work with Carla Bley, and the now sadly defunct but very influential Vienna Art Orchestra.
In 1992 Müller moved to London as international marketing director for Jazz at PolyGram International, and began the Verve Nights at a range of European summer jazz festivals including the Montreux Jazz Festival and North Sea in the Hague where it was based at that time, and he worked with leading jazz artists Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Abbey Lincoln and the great singer Betty Carter.
Later as vice president of International Marketing Classics & Jazz for Universal he was responsible for international marketing for classics and jazz priorities worldwide, and signed local artists to Emarcy who he also did A&R for. Müller signed Madeleine Peyroux, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Michael Brecker to the label, along with many other leading artists.
The label Jazzland, which he developed with Norwegian keyboards polymath Bugge Wesseltoft, is one of the labels divested by Universal under the terms of their recent takeover of EMI. Müller left Universal before the takeover and with his wife Yolanda Chalmeta founded consultancy company All-In-Music Service, and relocated to Madrid, where their company has been active working with artists such as Sergio Mendes, producing Chinese star Karen Mok with a studio session back in London, and acting as a European tour co-ordinator for Branford Marsalis, Jane Monheit, and other artists.
Sony Classical in a statement jointly issued in Berlin and New York last month announced his appointment as an exclusive jazz A&R consultant stating that Müller will be working with Sony Classical teams in both cities bringing “new and established artists to the company, overseeing product development and supporting the international marketing of the releases.”
The president of Sony Classical is quoted as saying: “Wulf is one of the most experienced and respected executives in the jazz world and I have wanted to bring him to Sony for a long time, and for his part Müller said he is “honoured and excited to be asked to start jazz activities within Sony Classical and look forward to working with the Sony teams on some of the greatest artists in today’s music world”.
On his blog Müller expands: “It will all be jazz as usual, but this time on the OKeh label, founded in 1918 and home to many jazz greats at the time – Louis Armstrong among them.
A new chapter begins for major label jazz in a fast changing jazz record industry dominated by the coming together of Universal and EMI, the custodians of Verve and Blue Note, and the ongoing migration to digital formats and the brave new world of streaming. How the other major, Warners, will respond in terms of ramping up their jazz activity in terms of new signings remains to be seen.