Do jazz fans still rail against the “plus-strings" concept, or later “third stream", as they did in Charlie Parker’s day, or wail inconsolably when Gunther Schuller and John Lewis took the synthesis a step further?
Possibly not, apart from a few diehards. But this year has seen less of the lonely string quartet parked on stage, hardly written into the action, than in the past. In fact they are more common than ever, and fully integrated, surely a sign that the antagonism to the concept is dying out.
Notable sightings have included the Mount Molehill Strings joining the Neil Cowley Trio, supplemented by even more strings at their recent Barbican concert; the Urban Soul Orchestra strings touring with Jazz Jamaica and Brinsley Forde is another recent collaboration that worked, with Jason Yarde’s arrangements a strong factor; and on Laura Jurd’s Landing Ground a connection to both Molehill and Urban Soul as both bands and Jurd’s impressive debut featured violinist Mandhira de Saram, on Jurd’s record as part of the Ligeti Quartet.
Others dipping their toes in these difficult waters have included Nick Tyson’s Chambr, and continuing his interest in the area, Dave Stapleton, who with Flight draws together jazz quartet and the impressive Brodowski String Quartet.
Where the wider trend started is hard to say, and to some extent, although this is changing, classically trained players who turn to jazz have little difficulty working in chamber situations. Brad Mehldau working with the Britten Sinfonia for instance two years ago, and more recently touring a classical work of his with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, has placed his newly commissioned work, ‘Variations for Piano and Orchestra on a Melancholy Theme’, with classical repertoire from Prokofiev and Mozart in concert programmes. For the full jazz symphony experience it was Wynton Marsalis who made an impact back in the summer premiering his Swing Symphony with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra joining forces with the London Symphony Orchestra.
2013 will see a major new chamber work from Wayne Shorter, the tone poem ‘Pegasus’ for his great quartet and the Imani Winds on his album Without a Net due in February. It’s a protean game changer, and example, for the new generation working in this area, and could inspire yet more jazz and classical collaboration to feed the creativity of jazz once more.
Wayne Shorter above who shows the way forward in 2013 with the 23-minute chamber piece ‘Pegasus’ on Without a Net due for release in February. Photo: Robert Ascroft
Tomorrow sees the opening of new exhibition ECM — A Cultural Archaeology, with the first public view on Friday, running until 10 February at the Haus der Kunst museum in the record label’s home city of Munich. ECM (the letters standing for Edition of Contemporary Music) was founded in 1969 by classical bassist Manfred Eicher pictured above left seated and is now the pre-eminent jazz independent record label in Europe, if not the world, with a strong classical side launched as the New Series in 1984 as well. Its roster of artists over the years is astonishing, with Keith Jarrett and Jan Garbarek pillars of the label, and many new signings releasing records regularly. Curated by Okwui Enwezor and Markus Müller, the exhibition the organisers say “presents visual, archival, and recorded material, bringing together a range of formats, such as sound, music, photography, film, and edition work."
Installations and works by contemporary artists whose inspiration parallels that of the label’s is also featured, along with concerts by label artists. An exhibition catalogue will be published later this month.
How was the London Jazz Festival for you?
There could be a hundred or a thousand answers to this question.
Ten days of gigs, with innumerable permutations in gig going, pre-concert talk to-ing, and post-gig foyer fro-ing, as well as films, afternoon shows, late night jamming in the clubs and concert halls of the capital, saturated London with jazz dominating in central London especially with additional pockets of heightened activity in the suburbs.
Yes, there were lots this year, none bigger than Sonny Rollins and Herbie Hancock, but there were also a great many unknown or little known European names, and many young and established bands from the UK scene taking part, some for the first time.
While some venues from last year did not take part, Boisdale Canary Wharf the most high profile of these, others took their place, but the festival hubs in terms of concert hall activity are clearly at the South Bank Centre and the Barbican. The clubs saw a huge amount of high quality activity, but it was Ronnie Scott’s, the Vortex, and the Pizza Express Jazz Club that were upper-most on many people’s wish lists.
I attended about half a dozen events this year, and I’m sure many people attended many more concerts, or even considerably fewer. It struck me that there is a big difference in feel between the ticketed big concert hall events and freestage activity. Audiences in both the Festival Hall and the Barbican were generally quite subdued and polite whereas in the foyers for freestage and Clore Ballroom gigs the atmosphere was more casual, more sociable, and it felt as if large numbers were sampling new acts that they would be unlikely to attend in such large numbers on a whim parting with hard cash. Hopefully, a percentage of these audiences will return for ticketed concerts in the future if the new bands they saw gain a following. With a band such as Finnish hopefuls Oddarrang, for instance, that could well happen given the response they received on the SouthBank.
How the BBC and Radio 3 will be involved next year for the festival’s 21st running remains to be seen as the “in association” sponsorship the festival has enjoyed comes to an end. But one would presume that the corporation will broadcast heavily at the festival whether it is a headline sponsor or not. With radio coverage and web reviews via blogs and social media and to a much lesser extent print media the festival made its presence felt, but given the epic size of the event this was still paltry compared to say the acres of media attention London Fashion Week, the Proms, and the London Film Festival receives.
It may be a controversial thing to say that the festival is now too big to make sensible choices, and it’s just another aspect of the plentiful array of entertainment in London. If gig-goers start to clamour for an intimate festival of some kind as an alternative then the chances are the festival has bulked up that bit too much. If they don’t then big is, for London jazz fans, most certainly beautiful.
View from the foyer above at the London Jazz Festival in the Barbican last week
2012 has seen an upsurge in the activity and ambition of UK indie jazz labels, even in tough times for CD sales. Here are some brief case studies of labels making a difference, beginning with some of the newer ones
Whirlwind Recordings Set up in the early part of last year with the release of Purpose Built by UK-based American bassist Michael Janisch, Whirlwind aims, it says, to “present the artists’ unadulterated artistic vision while exceeding industry standards in audio fidelity, graphic design, and promotional consideration." Releases have included The Immeasurable Code by Phil Robson, Smiling Organizm by Zhenya Strigalev, and Cohesion by Partikel.
Naim Jazz Just three years old the Salisbury-based imprint (previously the Naim Label) has had a good year with best selling well-received releases by the Neil Cowley Trio in The Face of Mount Molehill and Get The Blessing who launched OCDC, and both bands have also toured in the United States. The label says it is “dedicated to everything from smooth jazz right up to avant-garde", and presents its artists like an indie rock label might.
Edition Records Established in 2008 by pianist Dave Stapleton and photographer Tim Dickeson, Edition in a short space of time has been widely recognised both for its look and artistic taste. With the success of Phronesis the label had its first hit band on its hands, and successes have included the Ivo Neame Octet’s groundbreaking Yatra, and Marius Neset’s Golden Xplosion.
Basho Records Ahead of the release in 2013 of the sophomore Impossible Gentlemen release for Basho produced by Steve Rodby, this north London label, run by Christine Allen and Max Steuer since 2004, came of age when the Kit Downes Trio was nominated for a Mercury award, and the label has also been strongly associated with the early career of star pianist Gwilym Simcock. The label recently released the latest album of James Allsopp’s hugely promising band Golden Age of Steam.
Babel label A pillar of the UK jazz label community, and possibly the best known of them all, Babel was founded in the mid-1990s by former economist Oliver Weindling in London. With an unsurpassable passion for the music and a desire to develop both esoteric and the more accessible forms of jazz and improv Babel has seen critical success with Billy Jenkins, Polar Bear, Portico Quartet, Christine Tobin and trioVD. With increasing levels of output new bands Dice Factory and Indigo Kid coming on tap the creative spirit of the UK scene in the best traditions of the label.
F-ire Label The acclaimed Roller trio has spearheaded the F-ire Collective release roster this year. http://www.f-ire.com/label
Trio Drummer Clark Tracey’s label http://www.triorecords.co.uk
Emanem improv legend founded in 1974 http://www.emanemdisc.com/emanem.html
Leaf Leeds label whose artists include Polar Bear http://www.theleaflabel.com/en/index.php
Splashpoint Ian Shaw released his Fran Landesman album on this Sussex label in August http://www.splashpointmusic.com
Jellymould Huddersfield indie home to Hannes Riepler and the Magic Hat Ensemble. http://www.jellymouldjazz.net
Efpi Manchester pace-setting label with Beats and Pieces on its books. http://efpirecords.com
Phronesis pictured above
If industry pundits are right ― http://www.musicweek.com/news/read/radio-1-music-boss-guitar-music-is-coming-back/052585 ― and guitar music is to return centrestage in indiedom, thinking beyond, jazz guitar may follow suit.
The signs are there, but how will it build?
It could go retro in the hands of someone like Hannes Riepler who draws in a crowd of young players to his Tuesday Charlie Wright’s jams in Shoreditch. Or more contemporary, stimulated by a charismatic player such as Dan Messore who has started a series of Sunday gigs at the Vortex and whose band Indigo Kid joins the dots between the Iain Ballamy school of improvisers and new players such as BBC New Generation artist saxophonist Trish Clowes.
More likely, though, given the big interest in bands such as Supersilent who have been touring with John Paul Jones and play tonight at London venue the Village Underground, is the electronica side to guitar music.
There’s no finer an exemplar of this strand than Eivind Aarset whose new album Dream Logic has just been released by ECM. It’s a duo record featuring the 51-year-old guitarist with sampler Jan Bang, whose festival Punkt this year saw live performance by ambient pioneer Brian Eno.
The world where guitar synths and keyboards combine is the battleground of innovation, and other bands such as Eyes of a Blue Dog with trumpeter Rory Simmons switching to guitar and live sampling by drummer Terje Evensen coalescing with vocals to chart new territory and add to the interplay.
For nearly a decade and a half since Electronique Noire and with the Sonic Codex Orchestra Aarset has continued his pioneering work that makes each of his albums seem like a statement and stand out from the crowd.
‘The most significant jazz album to come out of Norway since Khmer’
Glacially slow and lingering Dream Logic’s 11 tracks are mostly the work of Bang and Aarset although producer Erik Honoré who recorded and mixed much of the album is co-credited on ‘Surrender’, and ‘The Beauty of Decay’.
With Aarset think the late Pete Cosey, think music from south east Asia, delivered at times by a Boss digital delay pedal, and you’re half way there with Aarset who in his youth was influenced by Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis and Terje Rypdal. That trinity is interesting but a Venn diagram of all three does allow for the starting point that for those interested in finding Rypdal via Aarset, like say Finnish band Oddarrang, there is huge transformation possible in the air.
If jazz guitar does move centrestage it will be different with input from electronica. Retro currents can drive change, ironically, and if you’re heard the until 2012 unreleased archive album Echoes of Indiana Avenue by Wes Montgomery you’ll understand what I mean, but it’s the new generation that given the possibilities technology allows has the potential to revolutionise the music to reflect the present.
It’s the journey towards a sound in jazz no one has ever heard. Aarset is, it’s clear, an innovator of some clout, as Dream Logic his finest work to date clearly indicates. The most significant jazz album to come out of Norway since Khmer in the late-1990s.
Eivind Aarset above. Photo: ECM
If only the walls could talk: Terence Blanchard was reflecting on the many nights he has played Ronnie Scott’s over the years. Introduced to the stage minutes before by club managing director Simon Cooke who wished he could have booked him for more nights adding as a cool by-the-way on the biggest night of the metropolitan jazz year: “A girl at the bar told me to say ‘it’s the first night of the London Jazz Festival’."
Blanchard was in good spirits after the first night of this short stint the previous evening and this single set was ahead of a live radio air shot later on in the evening for the BBC. In his most telling comment to the audience Terence would say that in jazz: “The tradition is to break tradition", something the set would go some way to illuminate.
Kicking off with a two-prong attack in classic Messengers tradition alongside Tuczon tenorist and fellow road warrior Brice Winston the band shot into Eddie Cleanhead Vinson’s ‘Four’ with some fleetness of foot, Cuban pianist Fabian Almazan quickly in the zone. Blanchard’s old boss Art Blakey, would you guess have appreciated Kendrick Scott at the kit although he might have had a thing or two to say! Young Julliard student Joshua, “Smiler", Blanchard has dubbed him, Crumbly, is a worthy successor to Ben Williams now sky diving admirably with the Unity Band. The walking blues towards the end, trumpet against bass, had the bounce and wit of Jimmy Blanton.
Quick and agile at the kit H-Town man Kendrick Scott has taste to burn. On Twitter before the gig he said he was “stoked" for action and so it proved. Displaying great mallet touch as the set developed, and he found the sweet part of the cymbal time and again. Blanchard standing back from the action sometimes impassive at the back of the stand coming forward to pick up shakers later for extra percussion and to throw in some finger snaps upped the ante in some style but it was balladry rather than high octane blasting a feature here. He had a Friday feeling as he cracked jokes after the second number, introducing the band and talking a bit of politics but not much he promised although not forgetting to mention that he turned down an invitation to the Bush White House, to applause.
Blanchard is a tender player and one of the finest jazz composers alive, but here was generous with his bandstand and Winston’s tune the band is to record called ‘Time To Spare’ has a sinewy charm, while former band guitarist Lionel Loueke’s ‘Benny’s Tune’ at the end was a joy as ever.