Not since Seasons of My Soul, in other words, 9 years, has a singer of the calibre of Rumer come along. The heartbreaking Amanda St. John/Paul Tierney/Michael Mormecha retro jewel ‘Walk Away’ was released last week and is a moment. Drawn from the upcoming Muscle Shoals from the soulful singer Amanda St. John recorded at FAME, Muscle Shoals in Sheffield, Alabama smell the sound. The Dusty road is hers.
Jazz composers and performers Anthony Braxton, Billy Childs, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Myra Melford, and William Parker have been selected by the Doris Duke charitable foundation in the States among a selection of 20 artists drawn from contemporary dance, jazz and theatre as the foundation’s 2013 recipients of largesse. Designed “to empower, invest in and celebrate artists by offering flexible, multi-year funding in response to financial and funding challenges that are both unique to the performing arts and to each artist”, each recipient receives approximately £145,000, plus up to £16,000 for audience development and up to £16,000 towards their future retirement fund. Anthony Braxton above
The stellar Miles Smiles band appearing at Ronnie Scott’s this week for two nights will now feature original Weather Report drummer Alphonse Mouzon in place of Omar Hakim, previously announced.
The band’s appearance marks the return of Wallace Roney to Frith Street, the trumpeter above who famously was mentored and performed extensively with Miles Davis late in the great East St Louis man’s career. Miles Smiles now a quartet is completed by organist Joey DeFrancesco (Live Around the World), and ex-Herbie man Ralphe Armstrong on bass. The band’s core material is based around the Second Great Quintet album Miles Smiles released in 1967.
Already this year fans of Wayne Shorter who wrote several tunes on the album have warmed to his new take on ‘Orbits’, the lead-off track Wayne wrote for Miles Smiles, and which appears on the brand new Wayne Shorter Quartet album Without a Net that signalled a significant return for the saxophonist to Blue Note records, brought back to the fold by Don Was. Mouzon goes way back with Wayne, and besides appearing on Weather Report released in 1971 is also on Wayne’s record that year, Odyssey of Iska.
Miles Smiles originally recorded at the 30th Street Studio in New York city and produced by Teo Macero, besides ‘Orbits’ features ‘Circle’, plus Wayne’s most famous piece ‘Footprints’, and on side two of the original vinyl: ‘Dolores’, Eddie Harris’ ‘Freedom Jazz Dance’, and Jimmy Heath’s ‘Gingerbread Boy’. MB Friday and Saturdaywww.ronniescotts.co.uk
Jazz Day is tomorrow, an international celebration of jazz around the globe organised by UNESCO. If you’re going to be out and about then here are some events to catch the music live. MOBO-winning Kairos 4tet whose latest album Everything We Hold is released in June are appearing at the Emmanuel URC church in Cambridge (8pm) www.cambridgejazz.org; and kicking off at the same time in Glasgow at the Old Fruitmarket tabla master Trilok Gurtu is in trio with fine Sardinian trumpeter Paolo Fresu and hypnotic Cuban pianist Omar Sosa (www.glasgowconcerthalls.com).
In Wales saxophonist Alan Barnes plays with BBQ at the Royal British Legion in Wrexham at 8.30; while clarinettist Ken Peplowski is on stage at the same time in the Pizza Express Jazz Club in London (www.pizzaexpresslive.co.uk). Also in the capital there’s an Ode to the Human Spirit concert (great title) with Marc Cary, Liane Carroll and many more fine musicians south of the river in Brixton (www.sgi-uk.org).
If you’re online tomorrow evening then don’t forget the international jazz day global concert at 7pm UK time by visiting http://live.jazzday.com
The Bib get on the case for their tenth anniversary
One of the highlights of last summer’s Match & Fuse festival in London was the appearance of Led Bib, that’s the out-there free jazz band that initially shot to prominence in London led by American drummer Mark Holub (above, second left) who’s now based in Vienna.
At the festival, which combined club sets and an outdoors stage in Dalston’s Gillett Square centred around the Vortex, before Holub took to the kit to unleash slabs of new material to a standing-room-only club, as I reported for downbeat.com, speaking in his dressing room Holub said the freer end of the scene was tough out there. “Support is dying and opportunities are drying up,” he explained. But undaunted and with the place packed out, Led Bib’s set laid waste to any pervasive doom and gloom with the sprawling, anthemic swell and two-alto-sax attack of Chris Williams and Pete Grogan, whose energising, jabbing lines were contoured by Liran Donin’s painstaking bass guitar.
Next year Led Bib are 10 years ago and they’re still way ahead of the game as that appearance clearly showed.
It’s remarkable that such an edgy band was ever nominated for the Mercury as the really edgy jazz produced in these shores generally doesn’t get a look in, and in 2009 their debut for Cuneiform Sensible Shoes got in there and helped open doors for the band. But it’s never easy and after the “token” jazz appearance excitement melted away and the media circus moved on it’s been very much business as usual despite the boost.
As Match & Fuse showed Led Bib are really where it’s still at in terms of the post-Ornette sound, and at Meltdown three years earlier when the great man himself curated the prestigious festival they appeared in one of the best free-jazz shows I’ve ever seen from a Generation X or Y band anywhere albeit in the hostile environment of the Clore Ballroom on the Southbank, a venue with all the acoustic charm of a leaky gymnasium.
Led Bib in their Kickstarter fundraising drive plan to do things properly with the money by releasing a new album plus limited edition live vinyl. You have until 25 May to help the band achieve their target and it’s definitely worth your while, with special goodies available for those who contribute.
Sam Crowe Group Towards the Centre of Everything Whirlwind ****NEW SEASON HIGHLIGHT The best Whirlwind release so far? Well that depends on your criteria, but for me this is, based on the life in the performance and the quality of the compositions and improvising group interplay. While the pianist composer’s Synaesthesiathree years ago showed a lot of promise it wasn’t an album that stayed with me for long but this new one, though, shaped by the twin pillars of on different tracks saxophonists Adam Waldmann and Will Vinson with new bassist Alan Hampton (who appears in singer/songwriter guise on the Kendrick Scott album Conviction), and new drummer Mark Guiliana recently in the UK with Brad Mehldau as half of Mehliana, is different. Will Davies, a long time Crowe associate is retained, and Kairos 4tet singer Emilia Mårtensson crops up on the fourth track ‘Back into the Earth’. Recorded in Brooklyn last year by famed engineer Mike Marciano this is a step up in terms of ambition all round for Crowe. But put all the ‘facts’ aside and what is there?
Well, the title track with Vinson taking the melody on is a kind of anthem that has a certain gravitational pull to it, and you’d guess that physics plays a part in ideas behind the album. Some of the other titles have that sort of direction (‘Gaia’, ‘The Arrow of Time’ or the EST-like intro to ‘Bad Science’), but the album sounds very untechnical as there is plenty of humanity and spontaneity to it, and while the recording does not feature Jasper Høiby who appeared on Synaesthesiathere is a sense of a Phronesis influence here and there. Maybe that comes from Guiliana who of course was onAlive.
Crowe’s first truly ‘naked’ solo happens on the ballad ‘Gaia’ and it’s skilfully weighted, while Hampton on woody upright bass keeps the pace down as Crowe gains momentum. Davies adds some great touches to warm the ensemble sound on ‘64 Interlude’, while the tasteful Waldmann’s saxophone contribution has a saltiness that then lends itself to lead on to Davies’ Lionel Loueke-like solo. The much vaunted English sense of melancholia (whatever that is exactly) you can guess is here a bit in Crowe’s writing although Towards the Centre of Everythingis more urban than a pastoral album, and on a track such as ‘Back into the Earth’ takes on a New Age-y sophisticated jazz-rock dimension, a tune that Chick Corea would perhaps be pleased to have written. Crowe in the solo after Mårtensson’s Flora-like vocal shows he can develop an idea in the course of a real-time solo, and that’s what Towards the Centre of Everything is all about: a sense of ideas at work and an improvising sophistication that gives it staying power. Mehliana fans might want to start with the drum ’n’ bass-driven ‘The Global Brain’ where Crowe also shows what he can do on Rhodes, and clearly it’s not all about Brad any more, is it, when players like Crowe appear on a quality album such as this?
Crowe says a little grandly but unapologetically in the notes that “Music for me has always been a gateway to the infinite”, and there is a sense of scale on Towards the Centre of Everything, in the miasmic conjuring of ‘The Arrow of Time’ and yet there’s a contrasting intimacy on the ballads, particularly ‘Lydia’. At the end reprising ‘64’ Hampton’s bass leads off the tune rather than the piano earlier, and it’s an interesting contrast that works to draw attention to one of the best songs on a robustly creative album.
Released today. Sam Crowe top and the album cover above. Review originally published on 7 April 2013
Tony Bennett and Dave Brubeck The White House Sessions Live 1962 RPM/Columbia/Legacy **** It was a fairly humdrum Tuesday in Camelot that August day, less than three months before the Cuban missile crisis. Not that there wasn’t a tricky decision or two to make, as one of the nine justices of the Supreme Court had resigned and President John F. Kennedy needed to move to replace him. But entertainment was never far away in the Kennedy White House, and on that late-summer’s day in 1962 two American jazz legends, Dave Brubeck and Tony Bennett, came together to perform at a concert thrown by the President for college students working as interns for the administration.
Recorded in the Sylvan Theater in the grounds of the White House the Teo Macero-produced master tapes lay peacefully in the Sony vaults until December last year, not long after Brubeck’s death. None of this music is known at all to the CD-buying public or digital generation, apart from ‘That Old Black Magic’ issued in isolation as long ago as the 1970s.
The thumping, almost metallic nature of the sound recording, takes a minute or two to get used to; but when the ear adjusts (there is definite tantalising period appeal), and after the ubiquitous ‘Take Five’, the best bits in the first half are the Chopin-esque ‘Thank You, Dziekuje’ and the 5/4 ‘Castilian Blues’, performed by the classic Brubeck quartet, the pianist plus Paul Desmond, alto sax; Eugene Wright, bass; and Joe Morello, drums.
Joe Morello above left, Eugene Wright, Tony Bennett, and Dave Brubeck
But The White House Sessions Live 1962 is very possibly more for Tony Bennett fans, and the five tracks with the Ralph Sharon Trio in particular. Bennett and the trio really swing, and there’s both poignancy contained in these tracks on a song such as ‘Make Someone Happy’ and soppy exuberance in ‘(I Left My Heart In) San Francisco’.
‘Small World’ is the pick of the whole album, with Sharon’s accompaniment eclipsing Brubeck’s later on, although that’s not surprising given the two men’s long standing rapport stretching back to the 1950s. This kind of music is all about rapport, like all the best jazz. Bennett really sells these songs, and these performances stand up more than well with his best jazz-flavoured work: in my mind that’s the singer’s 1975 studio collaboration with Bill Evans.
Bennett joins the Brubeck Trio towards the end of this album and there are some good moments here, maybe not quite as magic-laden as the earlier portion of the concert provided by Bennett and Sharon’s trio but very impressive nonetheless particularly on ‘Lullaby of Broadway’. Bennett’s ad lib announcement after hearing a siren: "I’d know that was Eliot Ness," a joking reference to the Prohibition era enforcer, is still one more fascinating aspect of the album. A significant reissue then, and a fine excuse to reassess Tony Bennett’s jazz work again, as well as remember once more the Dave Brubeck quartet.
A series of albums such as Jazz for Babies doesn’t come along every day. You might ponder that there are more than a few babies out there, and not just tiny people, but this bunch of five albums, the brainchild of bassist Michael Janisch, is aimed at educating your tiny tots. “Calm and soothing lullabies” as they’re explained in the album’s strapline, the CDs are divided into instrument settings so there’s The Piano Album, The Saxophone Album, The Vibraphone Album, The Guitar Album, and The Trumpet Album. Aimed at the purchasing power of loving parents who know the core values of music and jazz for an age group starting “in utero to 3 years-plus.”
Part of Janisch’s point is that the music presented is not the product of synthesisers, and there are some great musicians here playing ever so gently. Joining the bassist on the Piano Album for instance is pianist Steve Hamilton, with this duo supplemented on the Saxophone Album by Steve Winwood sideman Paul Booth. The Vibraphone Album reverts to trio, Hamilton again and Janisch, but with Cloudmakers vibes man Jim Hart joining (perfect on ‘Emily’); and on the lovely Guitar Album’s lullabies the core duo is joined by Partisans guitarist Phil Robson (excelling throughout) and then Louis Lester Band trumpeter Jay Phelps is the guest on the Trumpet Album (listen especially to a fine version of ‘It Never Entered My Mind’).
When Janisch and his wife Sarah were expecting their first child, daughter Eliza, they set about introducing her to what they saw “as the right kind of music at the earliest age.” And this is the fundamental inspiration for the albums, an educational impulse. The UK-based Wisconsin-born jazz musician who runs Whirlwind Recordings and is a professor of jazz bass at the Royal Academy of Music wanted the music to be “calm, quiet and lullaby-like” and certainly that’s what’s here. Even the edgy ‘River Man’ on the Vibes Album is rendered coo-able.
There are lots of very familiar tunes, for instance ‘Moon River’ and ‘Body and Soul’ on the Piano Album; and ‘My Funny Valentine and ‘Unforgettable’ on the Trumpet one. Anyone familiar with The Real Book will be completely up-to-speed with the material throughout all five albums although there are a few concessions to recent popular music here and there and inevitably Adele’s song ‘Someone Like You’ is included. The albums look good with matching squiggly-bright graphics, colours, and snazzy fonts and musically, compared to the highly bland non-jazz product that is available with cheesy tunes and cutesy sentimental tinkling based around nursery rhymes, the performances are of a very high quality. OK, the dynamics have been dampened down and the chords are resolutely major rather than minor but that doesn’t really matter: no one’s expecting harmolodics! Strident young maths jazzers and punk jazzers, whether they have babies or not, might hate the whole notion of lullabies (tough love, I suppose), so maybe this series is not for them. But for everyone else it’s a world away from muzak and processed sounds and is the gentlest, and most non-patronising, way possible for a tiny tot to enter the land of nod. Stephen Graham Released on 10 June
Nils Landgren Funk Unit Teamwork ACT ** An institution in Sweden since the 1990s and best selling in Germany but still failing to catch on properly in the UK the Funk Unit is an acquired taste. The charismatic trombonist and singer Landgren digs deep and gives it his all but somehow the results are pretty wearing although the band has come on immeasurably since their pretty awful Abba concept album. With Magnum Coltrane Price, Jonas Wall, Magnus Lindgren, Andy Pfeiler, Sebastian Studnitzky and Robert Ikiz plus guests who include Joe Sample, on ‘Green Beans’, and Wilton Felder from the Crusaders plus glamour trumpeter Till Brönner popping up, it’s highly glossy coffee table funk that somehow misses the point that the music needs to be a bit rougher around the edges, and not as highly finessed as Teamwork. Released on 3 June
The Ropesh The Ropesh Neuklang *** They’ve only been going a couple of years but The Ropesh whose members came together after playing around in Frankfurt and Mannheim already sound like accomplished veterans. The album the cover of which sports a painting with a big splodge of red and what appears bizarrely to look like a smiling kangaroo in shadow begins with some scrapey improv before giving way to a woozy solo by trombone player Marcus Franzke. Basically a post-modern mainstream record with a grab bag of influences from Bob Brookmeyer through James Newton to drum ’n’ bass and beyond all the tunes are the flute player Lorenzo Colocci’s (presumably also responsible for the bizarre title ‘My Flute Is Longer Than Yours’). There are also some tasteful guest vocals from youth orchestra Bujazzo’s Miriam Ast on ‘NeuB’. Points of comparison? Well, the band sounds a bit like Steve Rubie’s band Skydive although lots of other styles are bolted on, and there are distinguishing factors such as the unusual “softly”-spoken word on ‘Amico Disagio’. Pianist Rainer Böhm, who has recorded with John Patitucci and Marcus Gilmore, guests impressively on a couple of spots and the tunes are well conceived and executed with fine developmental sections and the feeling that each member of the band is really listening and responsive. The Ableton-like electronics add to the improvising more in the manner of an extra instrument than a gimmicky add-on, and the recording sound is excellent. Worth seeking out. Released in June The Ropesh, above
The chosen composers for the first New Music Biennial, to begin in January next year, have been unveiled. The PRS for Music-backed initiative will see new music performed at weekend showcases to be held at the Southbank Centre in London, and the UNESCO city of music in Glasgow next July and August, and will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and available as downloads. Covering contemporary classical, folk, jazz, world music, urban and electronic music of the jazz composers involved Gwilym Simcock commissioned by City of London Sinfonia will combine with clarinettist Michael Collins in a work for clarinet, strings, jazz trio and speaker. Glyndebourne young composer in residence Luke Styles commissioned by Juice Vocal Ensemble will feature experimental vocal trio Juice and BBC New Generation artist Trish Clowes’ jazz/classical ensemble Tangent, performing alongside three dancers retelling a Native Canadian folk tale. Avant-garde composer Piers Hellawell will create a new work involving improvising trio Bourne Davis Kane, which has been commissioned by Belfast promoter Moving On Music; and The Noisettes’ Shingai Shoniwa and The Invisible’s David Okumu, commissioned by London promoter Serious, are to create a new vocal work inspired by the values of the 2014 Commonwealth Games to involve community choirs.
The New Gary Burton Quartet Guided Tour Mack Avenue *** Turning 70 earlier this year and showing no signs of slowing down, Gary Burton’s latest quartet album Guided Tour nonetheless does take a while to get going, and the first four tracks are as you’d expect tasteful, but not particularly gripping. But on the sumptuous version of Johnny Mercer and Michel Legrand’s ‘Once Upon A Summertime’ everything comes together, and from this point on vibes great Burton, with guitarist Julian Lage, bassist Scott Colley and Pat Metheny drummer Antonio Sanchez who return from 2011’s Common Ground and who all contribute songs, move to a new level. The album then acquires an energy it hitherto had lacked in the earlier tracks. Burton has deliberately written in a Bill Evans idiom on the waltz ‘Jane Fonda Called Again’ and, on another of his tunes, ‘Remembering Tano’, pays homage to Astor Piazzolla. It’s clearly the better of the tunes in terms of an internal song narrative matched to improvisational direction. A highly accomplished album as you’d expect but one that takes patience for all its pleasures to unfold. Gary Burton above left, Julian Lage, Antonio Sanchez and Scott Colley. Released on Monday. The quartet play Ronnie Scott’s on 13-14 May www.ronniescotts.co.uk
This afternoon at a reception in Bremen, Amsterdam club Bimhuis will be presented with the Europe Jazz Network Award For Adventurous Programming at European jazz expo Jazzahead! The EJN is an 87 organisation-strong association of producers, presenters and supporting bodies who specialise in creative music, contemporary jazz and improvised music in place to support the “identity and diversity of jazz in Europe and broaden awareness of this vital area of music as a cultural and educational force." This year at Jazzahead! an icon of jazz and improv in the Netherlands, drummer Han Bennink, received the expo’s chief accolade, the €15,000 Skoda award. Bimhuis above
Cécile McLorin Salvant WomanChild Mack Avenue ***** ALBUM OF THE WEEK
Opening in a traditional fashion with Bessie Smith song ‘St Louis Gal’ Miami-born McLorin Salvant is simply accompanied by the guitar of James Chirillo. But WomanChild makes a swift gear shift soon after with the modern mainstream accompaniment of pianist Aaron Diehl, the 2010 Thelonious Monk competition-winning singer’s labelmate, on the Rodgers and Hart song ‘I Didn’t Know What Time It Was’. Diehl’s first solo opens up the shutters of the album before McLorin Salvant’s sighing return. Her tone is a thing of beauty and the delivery so very unhurried. The singer, with Haitian and French roots, spoke French as a child and even moved to France as a teenager where her jazz journey began, as Ted Gioia in the notes explains. That heritage is also developed on the album.
Womanchild is an instant classic, a real tonic, by a classic jazz singer of real quality. “She has poise, elegance, soul, humour, sensuality, power, virtuosity, range, insight, intelligence, depth and grace,” Wynton Marsalis has said and it’s easy to agree on the evidence here. It’s worth pointing out her style is very rare now especially among young singers, maybe only China Moses compares in this regard among the new generation of younger female singers however rooted in jazz they are. There’s a sense of the vaudeville era on ‘Nobody’ a real old time number with plunking bass from Rodney Whitaker and Diehl playing like a Harlem piano professor. McLorin Salvant can “talk” the song as well. Despite the worry in the lyrics McLorin Salvant “walks in stride” on her own song, the title track ‘WomanChild’; she sings in French on another of her songs ‘Le Front Caché Sur Tes Genoux’ and Diehl and the great drummer Herlin Riley make a strong rhythmic impression on Diehl’s ‘Prelude’ leading into the standard ‘Lull in My Life’, which has an elegance all of its own. Riley is brilliant at the beginning of the corny number ‘You Bring Out the Savage in Me’, and McLorin Salvant has fun with this via Betty Carter-like vocal acrobatics (also Carter-esque on ‘What A Little Moonlight Can Do’), a chance for her to experiment with daring intervals and grandstanding effects.
Other highlights include the sheer exuberance and pure vocal sound on ‘John Henry’ when the band builds up some whip-fast motion, Diehl’s prepared piano rolling back the years; and then there’s the sheer sensuality of ‘Jitterbug Waltz’. A wonderful album by a singer we’re going to be hearing a great deal more about in the years to come.
A guitarist’s guitarist Bob Brozman has died at the age of 59 the Santa Cruz Sentinel has reported indicating that he was found dead at home on Tuesday. Brozman was a very eclectic guitarist and genres were no barrier to his approach, as happy in jazz, the blues and world music styles. Best known as a slide guitarist he used a National resonator instrument and hollow neck acoustic steel guitars and played often in Britain and Ireland, recording in recent years Six Days In Down in the north of Ireland with traditional Irish musician uilleann piper John McSherry and fiddler Dónal O’Connor, joined by singer Stephanie Makem. Brozman travelled the globe and collaborated as he put it in the notes to the album after a lifetime “collaborating with musicians from tropical islands, I thought a cold-climate island project would be interesting and challenging.” The music on this album is in some ways a snapshot of his overall approach making the connection here between disparate musics, in this case Irish folk music, Malian sounds and Arabic modes, with Brozman playing a tricone guitar, and Hawaiian guitar, just some of the instruments he liked to use. Jazz guitarist Martin Taylor, among a host of musicians and fans marking the passing of Brozman on social networking sites commented: “Very sad to hear the news about Bob Brozman. We worked together many times in the US and Europe.” Bob Brozman above pictured in 2010 photo: Moving on Music
World music magazine Songlines has just announced its annual Music Awardsvoted by Songlines readers and the general public. Best artist is Angélique Kidjo for Spirit Rising;best group Lo’Jofor the album Cinéma el Mundo on World Village; the cross-cultural collaboration awards goes to Dub Colossus for their album Dub Me Tender Vol 1+2; and newcomer isMokoombafor Rising Tide.
Lo’Jo’s Cinéma El Mundo issued by World Village in the autumn hits the spot for jazz fans as well 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.
A white light moment led journalist Rob Adams to not just write about Venezuelan jazz musician Leo Blanco but inspired him to put together a major tour by the pianist and even dream up the name of Blanco’s latest album
The Bank of Scotland Herald Angels awards ceremony isn’t a gig as such. Presented every Saturday morning during Edinburgh’s month-long festival season in August, these awards reward outstanding performances and contributions in music, theatre, visual art, literature and indeed right across the arts spectrum as judged by the reviewing team of Scotland’s leading quality daily newspaper, The Herald. It’s become the norm for one of the musical recipients to “do a number” as a gesture of thanks and to entertain the assembled artists and their representatives.
So it was that, on the final Angels Saturday in 2006, Leo Blanco sat down to play a piano that, shall we say, wouldn’t have been the best instrument that he’d ever encountered. The sound he created nevertheless caused jaws to drop and people to ask who this master musician was, where he had come from and why he wasn’t a major star. And this wasn’t an easily impressed audience: Leo’s fellow Angel winners that day were almost all drawn from the Edinburgh International Festival’s world class programme.
I’ve wondered about Leo’s lack of major star status many times myself since then. Like many musicians, he could have done with having just a little of Jaco Pastorius’s infamous “I’m the best and I ain’t braggin’” self-promotion chutzpah in his make-up, although he’s not exactly shy. There’s also the fact that as a professor of piano at Berklee School of Music, Leo spends more time sending budding musicians on their way in their careers than he devotes to his own at times.
Speak to some of those who have benefited from his guidance – the inaugural Young Scottish Jazz Musician of the Year, pianist Alan Benzie, is one – and they’ll tell you that Leo’s a monster musician and hugely inspirational. The children in Caracas whom Leo has taught through the El Sistema music education regime would no doubt agree about his inspirational qualities and the classical musicians who have taken the improvisation module that he devised for El Sistema and that has now been taken up across the US will add to the psalms of praise. As will the players who have brought his compositions off the page, including the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, who commissioned Leo’s End of Amazonia, and horn quartet Brass Jaw.
The piece Leo played that morning of the Angels presentation, ‘El Negro y el Blanco’, was a fantasia based on ‘El Negro Jose’, a popular composition by Leo’s fellow Venezuelan, Aldemaro Romero, that appeared on Leo’s first album, Roots & Effect. It contained a lot of the characteristics you’ll hear when Leo undertakes his first extensive UK tour this summer in a series of solo concerts: brilliant imagination, gorgeous melodic touches and mighty bass-end grooves. Its performance that day could even be said to have triggered the tour.
Leo and I had been introduced a week or two previously, just before a Chick Corea concert at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh, by the Scottish saxophonist Laura Macdonald, a friend of Leo’s from her time at Berklee. “You’ve got to come and hear him – he’s playing some gigs with me on the Fringe,” Laura told me. I complied and within about 5 minutes of their first number on their opening night, I was texting the arts editor of The Herald, advising him to get himself down to the Lot, a compact venue in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket that’s no longer with us. I may not have said “get yourself down here” exactly in that text message but that was the gist of it.
The result was the aforementioned Angel award and a cyberspace friendship between Leo and me that would, the following spring, lead to him producing one of these evenings where everyone’s pinching themselves to make sure they’re not dreaming as the sound of world class music making from an ad hoc quartet filled the Blue Lamp, a natural jazz club masquerading as a city centre pub, during Aberdeen Jazz Festival 2007. The Lampie, as it’s affectionately known, wasn’t just jumpin’, as in full of people, it was dancing.
Several attempts to recreate that night in Scotland and in other parts of Europe have been made but, alas, never come to fruition. Cut to February of this year, however, when a chance remark I made to Jill Rodger of Glasgow Jazz Festival led to another of flurry of emails between Leo and me. Would Leo fancy playing a solo piano concert in Glasgow? Some combination of solo piano and various collaborations had come up in our cyberspace exchanges previously and while I had every confidence in Leo putting a solo programme together, I had no idea that he’d already recorded a solo piano concert and was planning to release it on CD.
The upshot is that I’ve become a booking agent for Leo in between writing assignments for my day job as a journalist. Four Scottish dates were added to the Glasgow Jazz Festival concert and then we advanced on England – with more friendly intentions, promise, than the Scots of Braveheart and Bruce. One of the English dates, in the Quantocks, even sold out old three months in advance and we’re now looking at BBC Radio broadcasts and the UK release of Leo’s live solo piano CD, Pianoforte, to coincide with the tour.
The name “Pianoforte" was my suggestion: it’s simple and it describes the dynamic range of Leo’s music – very quiet to very strong – as well as being the name of the instrument he plays. If you think “Pianoforte"’s a bit prosaic, even sober, ask Leo when he plays in the UK what the idea for the title was that he had to be dissuaded from using. (It was sort of in Latin and was briefly topical around the time of the new Pope’s election.) I’m not sure, though, that he’ll be brave enough to tell you.
Leo Blanco plays the Forge, London on 24 June; Recital Room, City Halls, Glasgow as part of the Glasgow Jazz Festival, 26 June; Blue Lamp, Aberdeen, 27 June; Queen’s Hall Edinburgh, 28 June; Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, 29 June; Carnegie Hall, Dunfermline, 30 June; Dean Clough, Halifax, 4 July; Sage, Gateshead, 5 July; Broomfield Village Hall, Broomfield, Somerset, 6 July; and the Apex, Bury St Edmunds, 10 July
The Konrad Wiszniewski and Euan Stevenson album New Focus has been longlisted for Scottish Album of the Year (the SAY award), the equivalent of the Mercury.
It’s a prize worth £20,000 to the winner. The pair take their place on a list that includes albums by Emeli Sande, Calvin Harris, Auntie Flo, Duncan Chisholm, PAWS and Django Django.
The shortlist, the next stage in the awards process, is announced at the end of May and then the winner itself on 20 June.
New Focus released by London label Whirlwind Recordings sees saxophonist Konrad Wiszniewski (above) and pianist Euan Stevenson (below) as part of a quartet (Whirlwind label boss Michael Janisch on double bass and Scottish National Jazz Orchestra rhythm maker par excellence Alyn Cosker completing the core band on drums).
And there’s also the Glasgow String Quartet and a harpist attached, a major element of New Focus. The album has its genesis in an Edinburgh Jazz Festival Stan Getz Focus-themed concert for which Wiszniewski and Stevenson wrote new material and performed, recording this album in the studio as a result to reflect their own compositional direction with each contributing pieces included on the album.
New Focus is very accessible and melodic, and the tunes are so much stronger than you’ll hear around. It is dreamier than Getz’s master work, and is romantic in the style of a player such as say the late Tomasz Szukalski or Janusz Muniak (in terms of Wiszniewski’s playing that has classic Polish jazz roots), although Bobby Wellins’ singular style circa Under Milk Wood rings a bell as well in terms of placing Wiszniewski’s highly proficient and characterful style if you are unfamiliar with his work so far.
With Stevenson pinpointing influences is not so easy although he has been compared a little loosely to Oscar Peterson and Erroll Garner and on this album does not embrace needless grandstanding, a big plus, as he is a nuanced performer. Wiszniewski is the clear instrumental voice to cling on to, or at least his role is more obvious. The softly unfolding ‘El Paraiso’ with some quizzical saxophone and dynamic pizzicato from the strings commands close attention as the album progresses, and I very much liked Stevenson’s introduction to the following track, ‘For Ray’. Brass Jaw fans will be fascinated to hear Wiszniewski in another musical situation while Stevenson’s star will undoubtedly rise both for his writing here (for instance ‘Music for a Northern Mining Town’), and the tastefulness of his overriding approach. SG
Vincent Peirani Thrill Box ACT ***1/2 Foreground or background? Well as Thrill Box is a chamber jazz record, and accordionist Peirani has a deliciously light touch, not so bravura in essence as a Richard Galliano for instance, it is music for the background to a conversation you imagine isn’t as interesting as the music performed. It’s not as self deprecating as either the title or the wallflower-like opening ‘Baïlèro’, written in the 1920s by French composer Joseph Canteloube tapping Auvergne folk music, would suggest. Crane to hear pianist Michael Wollny, fast becoming a firm favourite of the Munich label’s, and the little bass tickle of Trio Libero’s Michel Benita, a stimulating presence throughout particularly at the beginning of ‘Shenandoah’.
Tunes vary in style and range from the French player’s self-written numbers to ‘Goodnight Irene’, and Abbey Lincoln’s ‘Throw it Away’, as well as a Brad Mehldau tune ‘Waltz for JB’ among others. Peirani has been working with South Korean singer Youn Sun Nah and the guitarist Ulf Wakenius and it’s clear he has an abundance of musical vision although it’s a bit scattergun at the moment. He’s adept at installing a sense of tension on his own tune ‘Hypnotic’ and the trio tracks have a remarkable cohesion. The great French bass clarinettist Michel Portal guests tantalisingly on a few tracks even picking up a bandoneon on a homage Peirani has written to him; and watch out for the highly rated saxophonist Emile Parisien on ‘Air Song’ and violinist Alexandar Sisic’s ‘Balkanski Cocek’. Highlights? The lovely Ravel-like opening to ‘Air Song’ and the softly unfolding modal progression before Parisien makes a beautifully judged entrance. Its very eclecticism make the album hard to place: from the Auvergne to the music of Thelonious Monk is a long journey. When Peirani makes some more stopping-off points along the way as his career develops the overall picture will be a lot clearer and even more fulfilling. Stephen Graham