John Turville Trio

Conception

F-IRE Records ***

A surprise Parliamentary Jazz Award winner for best album last year when Turville’s debut Midas garnered enough votes to win, the 33-year-old Walthamstow scene pianist/composer has earned more than his share of plaudits in his short career to date although he is still fairly unknown to the wider public.

Here with Jamie Cullum bassist Chris Hill and drummer Ben Reynolds joined by cellist Eduardo Vassallo on some tracks, Turville comes across in the manner of Gwilym Simcock at first. It’s highly proficient, of course, but somehow fails to engage on the opener ‘Pharaoh Ant’, while his arrangement of Radiohead’s ‘Scatterbrain’, which draws out Turville’s more rhapsodic side is also a bit on the undercooked side. Then again until Blues Vignette many people recognised Simcock’s talent but failed to connect emotionally with him until he managed to unlearn a certain amount of musical baggage from his hothoused youth.

Turville certainly shows his learning, and has been compared by some critics to John Taylor, in itself quite a compliment, but fairly meaningless especially here. Maybe it’s an allusion to a specific style of chamber jazz Turville is pursuing, it’s hard to say, which prompts the linking of the two.

Conception, taking its name from the George Shearing bop original arranged sympathetically by Turville, is the final track here and worth the wait. But don’t forget Hill who plays a big role in the band sound overall, and he also writes one of the more expressive tunes in ‘Old Park Avenue’, with Reynolds more functional but pretty handy throughout, and in what makes all the difference the tango-like input of Vassallo who enters the fray with ‘Barrio Once’ and sticks around on ‘Elegia’ when the album only really starts to get going.

It’s a hard album to like but easy enough to admire particularly as structurally it’s strong with clear notions of episodic form and a sense of the wider world especially when Vassallo is involved. However, there are many fine piano trios around and it’s not clear given the presence of cello if Turville actually wishes to lead a piano trio or a flexible ensemble instead, his writing hints at the latter.

The album was recorded at the famed Artesuono studio in Italy, and mention ought to be made of engineer Stefano Amerio who has a reputation in Italy akin to Jan Erik Kongshaug’s in Norway for world class sound. He’s been working with the hit Hamburg trio Tingvall to telling effect as well as with Trio Libero, Craig Taborn, Anouar Brahem, Marcin Wasilewski, and a host of others. Conception has some handsome sonic clarity; if only the songs were that bit more memorable, but Turville has time on his side.

Stephen Graham

John Turville plays the Pizza Express Jazz Club in London on 27 September. Conception is released on 1 October and further live dates are: Jazz at the Fleece, Stoke By Nayland Hotel, Suffolk (5 October); Dempsey’s Cardiff (9 Oct); The Castle, Wellingborough (11 Oct); Hidden Rooms, Cambridge (14 Oct); Symphony Hall foyer Birmingham (19 Oct); St Ives Jazz Club, Cornwall (23 Oct); Performance Centre, Falmouth (24 Oct); 606, London (6 November); and The Cellar, Southampton (12 November)

It’s one of the questions of our age. No, not how do we stop global warming or tackle world poverty, but does the venerable ECM label have a sense of humour? Even a tiny bit. Well you may contend that an inanimate object is unlikely ever to have a sense of anything, but as we’re all guilty of conferring human qualities on our most cherished pets then why not ponder on whether the label that brought us such pieces of art as Afric Pepperbird, The Köln Concert, Officium and Khmer has a funny bone, or not, as the case may be.

Mostly ECM as everyone knows is about the deadly serious making of music, although there is brooding and there is downright blatant moodiness and there’s many an ECM album that could do with a little bit of lightening up. Someone close to producer and label founder Manfred Eicher, even the great man himself, must have thought we have to loosen up. So step forward the perfect man for the job: Enrico Rava. That may explain the unlikeliest ECM album ever with the silver haired lion of Italian jazz, an icon of the 1970s European avant garde with a wonderful fractured trumpet style, recording Rava On the Dance Floor with the Parco della Musica Jazz Lab live in the Eternal City last year. Then again it may not, as Rava explains that after Michael Jackson’s death he bought all Jacko’s CDs and DVDs and really got into him: “I felt the need to delve more deeply into Michael’s world."

And so for whatever reason Rava On the Dance Floor was born, nine tracks with nearly all the music Jackson’s, plus one of the singer’s favourite songs Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Smile’ and Rod Temperton’s ‘Thriller’ thrown in, of course. Well you’ve got to laugh, it’s the wackiest thing Rava’s ever done and while not as risible as say a jazzed up collection of ABBA songs it’s pretty lightweight stuff which feels like dad dancing with the lights on at a disco in Romford, or should that be Rimini, on a Tuesday night. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, within reason.

The band give it a shot and there’s plenty of beef from the trumpets neighing and carrying on in ‘Thriller’ and sentimental tenderness on ‘Smile’, a tune that’s impossible to dislike.

It’s not as if the album is an attempt either to reimagine Michael Jackson, surely Miles Davis did that better than anyone when he did ‘Human Nature’, or invest the music with such import as if every note was like a massive statement. That would have been fatal and actually you come away from this thinking, that Enrico Rava, bit of a groover. You can’t help but throw your head back and laugh at the opening to ‘Privacy’ say. So there we have it, the Italians make Manfred and the rest of us smile. Who would ever have thought it, no not even Manfred.

Stephen Graham

Fred Hersch Trio

Alive at the Vanguard

Palmetto ****

The first striking aspect of this 2-CD set recorded during a five-night run at the famed New York club in February is the superb sound engineering of the album. So take a bow Tyler McDiarmid and Geoffrey Countryman. But good sound is only the icing on the cake of any album truth be told, and the trio of the 56-year-old Hersch, who has battled the effects of HIV for many years and has even survived a two-month coma, is on superlative form, along with bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson who both played in Andrew Hill’s last band, on this album of seven new Hersch tunes, four from the Great American Songbook’s panoply of treasure, and seven jazz standards, the latter including ‘Softly as in a Morning Sunrise’ which John Coltrane recorded in the Vanguard in 1961. So no pressure!

Towards the end of the first CD on the penultimate track Hersch’s playful version rewards its inclusion and is a clear highlight overall, although the sandwiching of Russ Freeman’s ‘The Wind’ into Alec Wilder’s ‘Moon and Sand’, with its softly lapping ebb and flow on the second disc, which also has another clever segueing of ‘The Song Is You’ and Monk’s ‘Played Twice’ at the end, comes movingly close.

Wonderfully woody bass, drums you’d swear you can hear the skin’s very wrinkles of, and deep expressive improvising drawing out the fertile ideas in Hersch’s head, make this a must for fans and more than worth the purchase price for Hersch newcomers alike. It’s a piano trio that has no fussy gimmicks, no pop or rock sensibility at all, but is never pretentious in a cod chamber goulash. A wonderful album, that works because it has a cleverly assembled narrative arc disc-by-disc (the second is less intense but possibly more organic than the first) capturing a master pianist at the top of his game presented by the admirable Palmetto, a record label that values taste and presentation over the fast food approach of certain very famous jazz megacorporations. No one ever named a ballad ‘The Takeover’, did they?

Stephen Graham

Released on 11 September in the US

Fred Hersch plays solo at the Purcell Room in London on 2 October; The Apex, Bury St Edmunds (3 Oct); St George’s, Bristol (4 Oct); Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton (5 Oct); The Edge Arts Centre, Much Wenlock (7 Oct); The Venue, Leeds College of Music, Leeds (9 Oct); Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester (10 Oct); The Church of St John the Evangelist, Oxford (11 Oct, note new venue); and Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh (12 Oct).