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Tenor-of-our-times Chris Potter on his ECM debut as leader has come up with something very special indeed, make no mistake, on The Sirens (*****). Released in just under a fortnight, on 28 January, the album has a Homeric conceit, like streets in close proximity can be named after peaks in the same mountain range,  so the tracks on this record have titles to match the legendary tale. You’re also by association supposed to say it is epic! Or heroic! In terms of technique it’s not just that Potter handles the saxophone like a rancher is able to tame the wildest horse; he can also charm, coax and caress.

It’s all about expression on The Sirens, and like a theatre play that suddenly makes you feel frightened, or anxious to know how the drama is resolved, whether it’s going to be happy, sad, or even tragic, the narrative of each tune manages this as well. The serious yet unpretentious tunes he’s written resemble the way Potter stands on stage in a club before he plays, looking ahead, presenting himself, at ease with what they call the fourth wall, although as improvisation gains traction he’s oblivious to it. Charles Lloyd drummer Eric Harland is at the kit and it’s a maelstrom of ideas he brings to the session, the way say Nasheet Waits can burn on a Jason Moran record, with Harland’s own customised input.

There is a tenderness at play that Potter is expert at, maybe the best interpreter of a ballad since, in a different idiom, Stan Getz. Larry Grenadier on bass sounds different here than the way he plays with Brad Mehldau, he’s actually sounding more like he does with Fly. As for brilliant pianist Craig Taborn, well he’s less abstract than he usually is say on a song like ‘Kalypso’ and he rows in to meet Potter somewhere close to a Monk sound after his solo here. The other pianist, David Virelles, is on hand with the role of adding prepared piano sounds, celeste and harmonium, so that’s a twist in the arranging and it gives the album a distinctiveness without being gimmicky. The title track, opening with Potter on bass clarinet, and the very moody and sensual seascape-like accompaniment then opens out to transport us the listeners into the middle of a dream. When was the last time a song did that? Chicago-born Potter, who celebrated his 42nd birthday on New Year’s Day, has been playing beautifully of late and in the Unity Band last year with Pat Metheny showed just one more aspect of what he can do. There’s something magical in the water with this release, an element as mysterious, dangerous, and vital as the best music.

Stephen Graham

Chris Potter top

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Early next month leading improv percussionist Mark Sanders, and the Steve Tromans Trio, led by pianist Tromans with bassist Chris Mapp and drummer Miles Levin, are to travel to the US as part of an exchange between the cities of Birmingham and Chicago. It’s an initiative of Town Hall and Symphony Hall’s Jazzlines programme, in collaboration with Umbrella Music Chicago. The Birmingham musicians will spend a week in Chicago performing and rehearsing with locally-based musicians in a city renowned for innovation in improv. They will be playing gigs at the Hideout in a double bill, with the Tromans trio joined by an avatar of Chicago improv, reedsman Ken Vandermark, plus Mark Sanders and Jason Adasiewicz in duo on Wednesday 6 February. All four Birmingham musicians then hook up to perform with Dave Rempis, James Falzone and Josh Berman in small and large groupings at The Elastic Arts Center the following day, which leads to two days in rehearsal of a new Steve Tromans octet commission involving all the players. The piece will then be performed at the Hungry Brain on Sunday 10 February. SG
Mark Sanders above

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Lineage made their London debut in Hideaway at the weekend. Only their second gig ever, the Streatham club had a busy Saturday night feel, as sleet fell softly outside.

With a front line of trumpeter Byron Wallen, and saxophonist Tony Kofi concentrating on alto saxophone and soprano sax, with a rhythm section of fine Mulgrew Miller-influenced pianist Trevor Watkis, bassist Larry Bartley, fresh from a date with Skydive at the 606 on Wednesday, and UK-based American drummer Rod Youngs, like Bartley and Kofi, a member of the great Abdullah Ibrahim’s band Ekaya.

The Collins Dictionary defines the word ‘Lineage’ as meaning in one primary sense “direct descent from an ancestor, especially a line of descendants from one ancestor”, and both as a diaspora band united in shared musical and cultural approaches, and as stylistic descendants of some of the giants of jazz from the hard bop years and their modern day counterparts, the band succeeds on both fronts as it does on its own terms as top class players. It’s also a meeting of old musical friends, as for instance Kofi and Wallen go way back to the heyday of 1990s hard bop band Nu Troop, and you can tell when two instrumentalists have a close understanding as they know each other’s moves and can read each other’s direction beyond the letter of the closely arranged often intricate material as here. Kofi said he couldn’t think of anyone better to play the trumpet part on his ballad ‘A Song For Papa Jack’, which appeared on Kofi’s acclaimed 2006 album Future Passed, the song dedicated to Tony’s father who died 15 years ago, and Wallen played it beautifully.

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Talking to the audience later in the set Wallen made the astute comment: “Music is about relationships”. And that’s something audiences and musicians neglect to remember sometimes, but this band doesn’t in the broader sense even for one moment. Bookended by Woody Shaw tunes, opening with ‘Sweet Love of Mine’ and culminating at the end of the first set in Shaw’s classic mover, ‘Moontrane’ (Byron explained the title by saying amusingly: “Woody Shaw had a dream of Coltrane riding a bicycle on the moon”). Other set highlights were Tony Williams’ ‘Citadel’, heard on the much missed drummer’s 1980s Blue Note quintet album Civilization, here featuring Trevor Watkis on fine form as he was throughout, especially later on his own tune ‘With Substance’, which featured Larry Bartley and the deep throb of his bass was captured accurately by the club sound system, while Youngs’ cymbals were crisp and clear in the body of the big room. This band just has to be heard.
Stephen Graham

The Hideaway audience top relaxes before Lineage above make their London debut

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Soweto Kinch
The Legend of Mike Smith
Soweto Kinch Productions **** NEW SEASON HIGHLIGHT RECOMMENDED
When Conversations with the Unseen came out in 2003, everyone on the British jazz scene just had to stand back and take note. After all a young player, a complete unknown then, had somehow come up with something that immediately ranked him as a significant player who in time I suppose will be thought of as one of the greatest alto saxophone players this country has ever produced. And his skills were picked up internationally as well, with Kinch collecting international plaudits at the Montreux Jazz Festival winning a hotly contested saxophone award, while going on to develop his dual saxophone/rapping concept to move him into a new space, in the process gaining the high profile backing of Wynton Marsalis. Contrast Kinch’s musical journey with another Wynton protégé of the time, the blisteringly impressive Italian Francesco Cafiso, a more conventional if equally celebrated saxophonist, who has taken a different more orthodox path. When Kinch won the Peter Whittingham award back in the UK he used the money to fund the much sought-after single ‘Jazz Planet’, a catchy rap about an imagined topsy turvy world where jazz is the commercial music, and rock is the art music that no one really listens to. It’s amusing but makes its point felt. Kinch was underlining his ability as a lyrics man and a freestyler, at concerts often asking audience members to lob words (often very difficult rarely heard fiendishly polysyllabic ones) to build an impromptu rap.

Concept album A Life In The Day of B19: Tales of the Tower Block, his Birmingham album, was not so much of a success despite some good ideas, and was a bit of a curate’s egg, good in parts, but changing label and settling down into a better groove as his artistic direction changed The New Emancipation released in 2010 saw Kinch assert himself fully again and was met with positive reviews.

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The Legend of Mike Smith is once more a concept release, this time a double album built around the idea of the seven deadly sins with many short tracks spread over the two CDs, lots of humour, and role playing featuring characters that include Soweto speaking as his inner voice, his brother Toyin Omari-Kinch as album hero Smith, and skits plus full blown instrumental burn outs. Mike Smith is a hopeful MC looking for a deal but he has everyman qualities and faces everyman temptations, trials and tribulations.

The core band is Kinch with Karl Rasheed-Abel on bass and Graham Godfrey drums with Kinch inviting in many guests to either speak, act, sing, or play. Tessa Walker is perfect as the blasé record company A&R Kate Advo for instance and the best musical cameos include one from Jay Phelps on the ballad ‘Vacuum’ set against an elegiac piano line from Julian Joseph, with Kinch playing a kind of tough guy romantic on alto sax. Kinch also plays quite a bit of tenor sax on the album, an instrument he’s less associated with. Cleveland Watkiss appears on ‘Avaritia’, with its baroque liturgical undertow, in one sense a scaldingly anti-capitalist protest song critical of the excesses of a violent society obsessed obscenely with profit. It’s also a post English-riots London fable, the city as Mammon, but also the place where as urban people we live, an engine of greed. That song leads on to the Sons of Kemet-influenced ‘Slam’ with Shabaka Hutchings duelling against Soweto as the two master reedsmen go head to head. It’s wonderful stuff the pair riffing against neat harmonies with Godrey coming into his own hard at the kit. There’s lots more on this superb double album, funny little songs such as the fast food restaurant parody ‘Gula’ and its companion ‘Escape the Vomatorium’ and a certain historic time shuffling stepping back centuries before The Pharcyde via beats, baroque classical music programming, and a Milton-esque narrative sense. And what’s that rattling Mr Benn-type marimba-sounding moment on ‘Gula’, old TV music, lost in the ‘vomatorium’, possibly, as well? Finally, listen out for Eska Mtungwazi on the well crafted song-of-the-spurned, ‘Better off Alone’, on the second disc. There’s no getting away from it: The Legend of Mike Smith is a triumph.
Stephen Graham

Released on 18 February. Soweto Kinch and friends top, with the cover of The Legend… above