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Martin Speake
Always a First Time
Pumpkin Records 2 CDs *** / ****
Recorded over a decade ago Change of Heart was saxophonist Martin Speake’s last big statement but it took a long while to appear, eventually emerging on ECM. Recorded with the late Paul Motian, Mick Hutton, and Bobo Stenson, that album was praised at the time for its Lee Konitz-type clarity and “unhurried” playing. Always a First Time, this new double album released on Speake’s own label, an imprint that two years ago released a quartet album called Live at Riverhouse, retains that palpable sense of patience, beginning at an almost stately pace. The Konitz connection is retained, not just in Speake’s sound but in the presence of former Konitz drummer Jeff Williams returning from the quartet. Speake also dedicates ‘Ramshackle’ to Konitz.

Williams appears in an up-front role throughout the 20 songs just like the other two musicians, with guitarist’s guitarist Mike Outram also performing a crucial function, colouring the sound especially on the Puccini aria ‘O Mio Babbino Caro’ (dedicated to Speake’s father, appropriately). Oddly you don’t miss the bass, but Outram’s skill has a lot to do with this as well as Williams’ ability to make the drums sing.

From the heart: Jeff Williams, above left,
Martin Speake and Mike Outram

The trio covers a great deal of ground only partially explained by the extra canvas the two CDs provide. With songs dedicated to friends, mentors and inspirations Always a First Time is predominantly ballad-driven, but it’s not particularly brooding. More philosophical, and on tracks such as ‘Twister’, on the second CD, there is also a sense of abandon that a quick first listen might not straight away fix on to but is definitely there.

In the notes the author of Love and Will, the existential psychologist Rollo May is quoted to the effect that the creative artist, poet and saint, must fight the gods of conformism, apathy, material success and exploitative power: formidable foes one and all yet May despairs that “These are the ‘idols’ of our society that are worshipped by multitudes of people.” Further quotes within the artwork contribute a sense of aphorism to Speake’s outlook as does his typically thoughtful, but skilfully non-conformist playing.

Recorded in the same room, unseparated, without headphones, the way records used to be made Speake says “we all played from the heart”. And you can tell this when a song like ‘Meditation’, which crops up on both discs with two different dedicatees one of whom includes Fidel Castro, dissolves (on the second disc) into a ‘listening silence’, when you just know the players like what they’re hearing and do not need to push the tune on any more than is strictly necessary in case the mood is spoiled. The second of the CDs has the edge, as it’s a bit more open, but the more orthodox ballad-and- cool school bop approach on the first disc, with songs that include Rodgers and Hart’s ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’ and many fine Speake originals, have an integrity that is a hallmark of Always a First Time. As is its sense of the bigger picture.

Released on 25 March

 

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Kenny Garrett: intimate appearances

It’s not easy to catch, live, the undisputed giants of the music up close and personal in a jazz club. When it happens it’s impossible to forget.

Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Sonny Rollins, Charles Lloyd, Wynton Marsalis, even, in your neighbourhood jazz club any time soon? Forget about it: it’s just not going to happen. But a kid can dream.

Well truth can be stranger and even more mind blowing than fiction sometimes, and last year one of the giants of the music alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett best known for his intuitive work with Miles Davis and for his own records made a welcome return to the UK playing a few jazz clubs rather than a concert hall.

And he returns to one of the clubs, the Pizza Express Jazz Club in London tonight for two shows after last night’s opener. Garrett is reunited with pianist Vernell Brown Jr., bassist Corcoran Holt, and drummer McClenty Hunter Jr. who played London last year slaying the crowd on one of the nights with the infectious ‘Happy People’ but adding percussionist Rudy Bird this week for even more heat.

On form in the studio, it’s just a year since the release of one of Garrett’s most memorably melodic albums to date, Seeds From The Underground, yet live there’s an additional rapid-fire spontaneity from the alto man, allied by Hunter’s Tony Williams-type attack that communicates immediately.

With his trademark skull cap, still youthful demeanour and playing style head-bobbing up and down, alto saxophone in the air, or down low to the ground, Garrett can deliver elegant runs of beautifully fluid improvising episodes with at times a Mali-meets-McCoy Tyner style bubbling up from pianist Brown on original material of the quality of ‘Boogety Boogety’. Not to be missed. MB

Kenny Garrett, above

www.pizzaexpresslive.co.uk

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Northern exposure

Double bassist Andy Champion and his band ACV have signed to the cutting edge jazz independent record label Babel and will launch their debut Busk early next month.

From the north east of England a relative newcomer to the national scene Andy Champion performs with Voice of The North, and with his wife singer Zoe Gilby, and for the new album Champion has worked closely with producer Chris Sharkey, of Leeds skronksters trioVD.

The Champion five sees the bassist joined by saxophonist Graeme Wilson, pianist/keyboardist Paul Edis, guitarist Mark Williams, and drummer Adrian Tilbrook in ACV whose sound is grounded in prog and free improv. 

ACV above launch the album with dates at the Vortex, London on Thursday 4 April, and the Gateshead Jazz Festival two days later. In Gateshead, in addition to launching Busk, Champion will also perform Ian Carr’s ‘Northumbrian Sketches’ in a band to include Henry Lowther, Tim Whitehead and strings.

Quest
Circular Dreaming
Enja ****
It’s a Charles Lloyd kind of day today as the great man celebrates his 75th birthday. Love in bassist Ron McClure, who’s a pillar of Quest, must have some extraordinary memories from those far-off quartet days with Charles, Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette.

And Quest, too, is about memories, their own as a longstanding group with 10 albums now released, but also of the 1960s. A repertory band featuring a sprinkling of new compositions with a pair here by sax icon Dave Liebman and Richie Beirach, Quest, (with McClure, pianist Beirach, drummer Billy Hart, and Liebman) look and you can make out in the typography within the circle of the ‘Q’ on the cover text that proclaims the band “plays the music of Miles 60s”. It’s a message amplified by Michael Cuscuna in a preface to the notes inside who boldly states Quest is “devoted to interdependent group music rather than the soloist with rhythm aesthetic.”

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On a mission: Ron McClure (above, left),
Dave Liebman, Billy Hart and Richie Beirach

Beautifully presented with attractive artwork, clear notes and photographs Circular Dreaming begins with Wayne Shorter’s ‘Pinocchio’, and other tunes include five other Wayne compositions, including a throaty Liebman-led ‘Footprints’ and album standout ‘Vonetta’. Shame about the spelling of ‘Nefertiti’ though, you can never have too many ts… except here. The album title track is a tune of Beirach’s, a homage to Miles. Beirach says: “I wanted the circular feeling of no beginning and no end with the harmony definitely moulded to the melody”. Maths jazz today strips away that connection, a fault Circular Dreaming avoids entirely. Fine playing throughout with gutsy blowing and a desire to make the music exist as part of a continuum without putting the music behind a glass case in a museum. Circular Dreaming also shines the spotlight on a significant amount, yet still represents just a small sample, of Wayne Shorter’s best work as a composer, timely as his latest great extended piece ‘Pegasus’ has just been released on Without a Net.

The cover of Circular Dreaming, top, and Quest above

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George Shearing
At Home
Jazzknight NEW SEASON HIGHLIGHT ****
Beginning like a foxtrot, when was the last time that happened?, ‘I Didn’t Know What Time It Was’ has a twinkling style, full of the chirpiness Nat King Cole managed to endow old Broadway songs with when he himself played piano. Shearing turns on his significant charm though after about a minute in, and these living room songs recorded in the great pianist’s New York home in 1983 draw out Don Thompson’s role as a confidant to Shearing’s left hand. Thompson played with Shearing for some 20 years in all, and you feel as if he knows Shearing’s every move on the tracks they play together. Now 73, he accompanied Barney Kessel early in his career in Vancouver clubs, and appears on the John Handy Quintet classic live album Live at the Monterey Jazz Festival recorded in 1965.

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Don Thompson: hearth of the matter

Thompson began playing concerts with Shearing decades later, from 1982 onwards, the year before the newly discovered At Home was recorded. And just under the three-minute mark he and the recording engineer (in fact one and the same), draw out the woodiness of the bass a skilled carpenter would find hard to locate.

A sprightly start then to this remarkable Jazzknight records album, Lady Shearing’s label, with the backing of discerning jazz distributor Proper Note, there’s an elegant fade at the end of the opener; and then, like some sort of mirage Johnny Mandel’s ‘A Time For Love’ emerges after the silence. Well what can you say? It’s beautiful. You just want to be there, even though the track’s very short. Thompson comes in on the arc of the Shearing line here time and again, at the emotional tug of the note. 

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Thompson’s own tune ‘Ghoti’ (apparently Shearing dubbed it: “up at the crack of Don”), leads into a riot in swing, and you could hear this being played with a vibes quintet, Shearing’s preferred stomping ground in his heyday. This one’s got bebop written all over it. After two minutes Shearing changes the goalposts, and there’s a rhythmic murmur that’s the very essence of bop syncopation.

The sound quality is fine throughout At Home: you can really hear the piano and bass and the instruments together. The album was mastered much later in Toronto, the city where Ellie Shearing first heard the tapes played before pressing green for go to start the process towards release after an ice age of 30 years in the obscurity of a drawer.

‘The Things We Did Last Summer’, the Jule Style/Sammy Cahn song begins jauntily, as if the duo are feeling completely at ease, and that’s a defining feature of this wonderful album. Apparently Lady Shearing provided cups of tea in breaks over the few days the album took to make. No producer was present, and there is a comfortable feel to all these tracks recorded around the time of a run of club dates in New York.

‘Laura’ is the first big talking point and really the test of the album. Opening expansively the theme is stated quite simply with a few ornate touches, but Shearing seems more interested in building the darkness in his left hand at which he more than succeeds. The tempo slows right down and there are some lovely washes after the 150-second mark moving towards some high-end tinkling that ends even more seriously than it began. With Thompson back ‘The Skye Boat Song’ I could have done without, although it’s a pretty enough melody and close to the bassist’s heart. But Shearing and Thompson are on more satisfying territory with Bird’s ‘Confirmation’ joyously foot tapping, but not fast at all. Remaining tracks are a winningly shy take on ‘The Girl Next Door’ with its hesitant opening; a swayingly optimistic ‘Can’t We Be Friends?’; the more mundane ‘I Cover the Waterfront’; and ‘Out of Nowhere’. Although ‘That Old Devil Called Love’ opens things up, ‘SubconsciousLee’ allows lots of bass space, and little detours here and there. Victor Young’s ‘Beautiful Love’ is simply a display of Shearing genius at the end.
At Home is released on 15 April

Sir George Shearing top, Don Thompson above; and the album cover  

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Erin Boheme
What a Life
Heads Up **** RECOMMENDED
This is quite a special album: full of great songs delivered in a very commercial way. Some of the songs could chart even. Boheme has been around a while, signed as a teenager, and the album has added stardust, as Michael Bublé has produced. But where’s the jazz you might ask? Well if you ask that kind of question, this album is not for you. It’s about songs not improvising, but it’s perfectly compatible within its alt.country framework rather than the flawed smooth jazz format that is now disappearing or at best morphing into more acceptable soul-jazz. Contrast the Eric Benet version of ‘The Last Time’ with the version here and there’s a huge difference in interpretation, less cheesy for sure. In Benet’s take on his own highly effective melancholic song, co-written among others with famed songwriter David Foster (who penned ‘I Have Nothingfor the late Whitney Houston and produced the Corrs), the natural feeling gets lost a bit crouched behind the layers of glossy audio production and arrangement. Bublé’s approach although you mightn’t think so at first blush is to strip away the varnish, and let the songs breathe, and Carly Simon-loving Boheme begins demurely on a low key Emeraldesque rumba ‘Everything But Me’, which is close enough for jazz as Van Morrison might put it. Why Boheme needed to cover a Coldplay song I don’t know, and I didn’t care for the Bublé-sounding Spencer Day who is on the otherwise excellent ‘I’d Love To Be Your Last’. But ‘One More Try’ is quite superb, and jazz-intuitive, and of the band we really should be hearing more of pianist Alan Chang who co-wrote the song with Boheme. Overall then, songs that will stay with you, delivered by a singer who clearly believes in her material and carries both the record and the day.

Close enough for jazz: Erin Boheme above plays the Hippodrome, London on 16 April, with special guest Tammy Weis. What A Life is released on 25 March
www.hippodromecasino.com