Is there such a thing as a spoof piano trio? Well I guess there is but in irony-loving jazz circles [em], even in Dalston, would not qualify. The only thing ‘pretend’ about the trio on this showing was the German jazz piano trio’s fluently elegant take on Komeda’s music for Roman Polanski’s 1967 knockabout curiosity The Fearless Vampire Killers, the first song of the second set. What would bat connoisseur Professor Abronsius, in the film played by the great Beckettian actor Jack MacGowran, have made of it? Who knows, but aficionados of these small nocturnal mammals have a thing or two in common with jazz fans, 50 or so of whom were gathered last night (thankfully the right way up) in the Vortex for the return to the club of pianist Michael Wollny, bassist Eva Kruse, and drummer Eric Schaefer. Opening with two numbers from their 2006 album II, Schaefer’s ‘So Will Die Sonn’ Nun Untergehen’ and ‘Phelgma Phighter’, the band soon hit their stride with the long haired youthful-looking Wollny fleet of foot and luxuriously supple in his darting runs, while Kruse, who is expecting a baby, was smilingly attentive and supremely intuitive in her confidently startling harmonic counterblasts. ‘Dario’ from last year’s superb Wasted & Wanted, with Schaefer picking up a melodica at the beginning of the number, altered the focus of the set as it gained content and depth and Schaefer’s little touches on bells and scuffling industrial sounds as well as his ability to rock out added much to the beautiful, often sensuous, voicings that Wollny habitually creates. Their remarkable version of Schubert’s ‘Ihr Bild’ was even better than on the excellent album version. Wollny mused at the end that Kraftwerk were in town at Tate Modern before [em] launched into their intuitively recomposed version of ‘Das Modell’. A world away from the ritual of electronic music, [em] are streets ahead of anyone’s idea of a jazz trio and have just got to be heard. Stephen Graham
There’s a kind of perceived wisdom out there that bands that play together stay together. So instead of their members picking up gigs wherever they can, they only play in one formation and you don’t see them anywhere else until they break up. It’s a hard thing to do, and only a tiny number of bands manage it, EST, the chief example for many years.
Yet other bands and their individual members thrive on separate lives from time to time and Phronesis is one of them. The trio even operated as the band of Nordic sax ace Marius Neset when he was starting to make a name for himself in the UK.
Phronesis pianist Ivo Neame, who’s playing at the Vortex tomorrow with his celebrated octet, has created some space away from the band, and Phronesis founder Jasper Høiby crops up regularly with other leading bands.
Phronesis are touring in the UK in April previewing new material for their next album with a big gig at the QEH in London on 5 April as well as a date in Suffolk a couple of days earlier and then a trip to the north east for the Gateshead Jazz Festival.
For the London date the band is joined by singer Olivia Chaney, multi-instrumentalist Dave Maric, and vibist Jim Hart of Cloudmakers Trio. Phronesis are expected in the studio later in the year. Stephen Graham
Ivo Neame (top), Jasper Høiby (middle), and Anton Eger above
Last week on Marlbank I wrote about Simon Spillett’s new album Square One and commented: “Spillett is a self confessed purist and recently this comment was attributed to him: ‘Jazz will only survive if people are exposed to the music in its purest form.’ Disputing that this thinking isn’t particularly helpful, “as it requires someone to step forward and presumably spell out what jazz purism is”, I went on to question the need for jazz in its purest form and suggested its historic hybrid nature, and broad international and stylistic appeal, mitigated against such an attitude that Spillett maintained. I also said: “You can draw a line back via pianist John Critchinson here to Ronnie Scott’s regular band, which Critch for many years was a member of, and long before that back to the Scott and Tubby Hayes co-led Jazz Couriers," and that Spillett’s quartet kept “the Hayes spirit well and truly alive" before going on to praise the “high standard" and “enjoyable nature" of the playing with its “unfettered drive from Clark Tracey who sounds as if he’s in his element.” There was a little speculation in the article, which you can read in full here, that Square One will stir debate and sure enough it has, with Simon Spillett himself getting in touch with his reaction. “I deliberately avoided any heavy Tubby Hayes connections on this album and yet what does the first reviewer pick up on? The point is, I don’t want to have to keep defending my right to play in a style that isn’t up at ‘da cutting edge, man’. I don’t really care what the critics think of my ‘approach’ as long as I’m playing as well as I can. I’m not consciously thinking of turning back the clock, restoring old values or of looking like I’m standing by Barnes bridge in 1962. You don’t have the luxury of that when you’re trying to make a living!” SG
There’s art in entertainment, and entertainment in art: a truism often trotted out. But is there entertainment in artwork or artwork as entertainment? Mostly Other People Do The Killing’s Slippery Rock! (Hot Cup ****) says yes there is to the latter, and the band’s latest CD comes laden with a riot in garish graphics on the cover and inside, so if that’s your idea of entertainment then this is the album for you. Don the sunglasses before picking the album up, though. If you prefer your entertainment wrapped up in art then this album, the quartet’s fifth, is also for you. So far their output has left me a bit unmoved because despite the trappings it didn’t seem that adventurous even if the playing was always really full-on. For a while it also seemed to me that the band was all about Jon Irabagon’s saxophone pyrotechnics, which of course it’s not. Bassist Moppa Elliott writes the tunes on Slippery Rock but he’s pretty anonymous as the free jazz- and improv-friendly band, powered by the Seb Rochford-like agile drumming of Kevin Shea, plays as a band not as a wonky IKEA flatpack where everything is put together solo by solo and then falls apart creakingly after standing up for all of two fairly unconvincing seconds.
Their song titles are fun, and Pennsylvania certainly has a bunch of irony-loving jazz ambassadors waiting for that call (and the state governor Tom Corbett could do worse than invite the band along next time he’s throwing a soirée although they could be washing their hair that night). The heirs apparent to John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards? A bit, with a strong resemblance to Led Bib as well. Peter Evans is a major voice on trumpet throughout making the band direction veer off on its own itinerary, though. Working together with the very listenable Irabagon on the episodic improv-laden sections on the ninth of the nine tunes, ‘Is Granny Spry?’, he shows his musical ideas are as box-fresh, and at least as sharp, as Leonardo Featherweight’s “lyrical” sleevenotes.
Mostly Other People Do The Killing, above. Slippery Rock! is out now
The full Cheltenham Jazz Festival line-up for 2013 has just been announced, and it’s good to see Madeleine Peyroux back to the scene of earlier triumphs at the festival, although that was back in the Everyman theatre era of the festival. Now of course the festival is centred on the Montpellier area with a bespoke main arena and big top as core venues. Booking Laura Mvula (above) is a good idea as the gospel and soul-infused new star-in-the-making ought to attract a non-jazz audience who’ve seen her on TV, and yet whose sensibility is directly in keeping with the high artistic qualities of the festival, and the key spirit of jazz.
Other impressions: Marius Neset at the Parabola will be keenly followed. The Norwegian saxophonist’s new album Birds is astonishingly accomplished and shows artistic progression since Golden Xplosion which you would have thought would itself have been hard to beat. Georgie Fame at the Friday Night is Music Night Radio 2 broadcast show is a great nostalgic touch and builds on the reminder Georgie gave us last year of just how significant an artist he still is with his latest album Lost in a Lover’s Dream.
The Dave Douglas Quintet should be another strong draw for hardcore Cheltenham attendees, and it’s also a unique festival chance this year to catch Alex Wilson’s Mali trio and also find out what all the fuss about GoGo Penguin is if you haven’t heard them. If you have, you’ll probably still want to catch the north west band’s EST-derived sound at first hand.
The Ravi Coltrane Quintet includes in its number pianist of the moment David Virelles (above), the Brooklyn-based Cuban who’s on Tomasz Stańko’s exquisite new Wisława double album and Chris Potter’s The Sirens. Rumour has it Virelles has inked a solo deal with ECM’s Manfred Eicher as well for his own record.
Gregory Porter is back for 2013, which is good news and he’s artist-in-residence this year, an inspired choice, and it’s to the festival’s credit that Cheltenham has booked Sons of Kemet, arguably the best new underground band on the London scene last year, and they’re still to issue their debut album although it was recorded in February.
The Reuben James Trio is, if you’re seeking brand new talent, well worth your time, James of course a young protégé of the late Abram Wilson. The pianist was on fine form in January at the 606 sitting in with Theo Jackson who’s also appearing at the fest in his case in duo with Nathaniel Facey.
Troyk-estra pick up where they left off at last year’s Jazzwise to the Power of 15 festival at Ronnie Scott’s, playing the Parabola, and one of the biggest events this year is sure to be an appearance by the classy Mike Gibbs Ensemble.
Gary Burton is always a popular visitor to the UK scene, and his presence in the grand old Gloucestershire spa town should augment the programme in the eyes of his many fans in the UK. Mike Stern and Bill Evans by complete contrast should blow away a few cobwebs with their gutsy jazz-rock come May.
Claire Martin also brings her classic jazz vocal approach to the festival, and look out for Anglo-French collaboration Barbacana featuring Kit Downes and they also have an intriguingly abstract new album out this year. Cheltenham is experienced at bringing hip fairly unknown US players to the festival, and this year is no exception with the appearance scheduled of vibes player Jason Adasiewicz’s Sun Rooms. And as with the Laura Mvula booking it’s fitting that Lianne La Havas is on the bill, another one for the Jools Holland Later following. The double bill of Polar Bear (above) and Roller trio is a good idea joining the dots between old-young Britjazz and new-young Britjazz. And finally Van Morrison on the Monday, given that Born to Sing: No Plan B was a hit with the critics and top 10 success last year, is a fine way to bring the festival to a close. The Big Top should suit him to a T.
The Cheltenham Jazz Festival runs from 1-6 May. Tickets on sale from Monday 4 March. The full line-up is at http://www.cheltenhamfestivals.com
The jazz vocals scene has changed immeasurably since 2003, the big year that Jamie Cullum broke through with the million selling Twentysomething inspiring a tsunami of interest in the niche, and seeing singers such as Clare Teal, who actually ‘discovered’ Cullum in the first place, sign to a major label. A decade on Cullum, about to release his latest album in May, is still apparently tapping the scene for the Great American Songbook on Cole Porter’s ‘Love For Sale’ rumoured to be on the new album. But Cullum has moved on himself, and who would have thought a decade ago that he would have been covering Rihanna and The White Stripes? Answer no one. Purists would have been incredulous or would have intoned darkly “told you so”. Clare Teal on the other hand moved away from jazz quite a bit into the showbiz mainstream for a while as she switched labels, moving from one major to another, and developing her broadcasting career, but certainly on a recent hearing has moved back to her initial Ella Fitzgerald-influenced starting point. Working with the likes of talented retro-radical Jay Phelps has certainly paid dividends or maybe reminded her that jazz is her real strength and on her day no one has a finer classic female jazz singer’s voice rooted in swing in the UK than Teal. In terms of male crooning the scene has changed, and while no one could claim that Jamie Cullum sounds like Harry Connick any more (that’s how he started out) there are others who do. Anthony Strong, say, is beginning to make a name for himself in France and Germany, and interesting Mancunian Alexander Stewart has managed to inject his own personality, love of The Smiths, and more besides, into his idea of crooning.
Another singer who we’ll be hearing more about in the spring is Theo Jackson. The newly London-based singer has a distinctive style and unlike orthodox crooners is very hard to place. He’s not of the Rat Pack, and he’s not a Bublé-ite, which Stewart to a certain extent is, but places himself more inside the band not just because he plays the piano but inserts his vocals in settings that relate to the saxophone lines of Nathaniel Facey, the Empirical co-founder who recently won instrumentalist of the year at the Jazz FM awards. Jackson writes his own songs, and last year released a promising debut album called Jericho that nonetheless failed to achieve a huge impact. Now with imaginative management, above all talent, and a determination to break through Jackson is embarking on his first big tour. The 27-year-old Durham university music graduate is hardly wet behind the ears, and his tall confident demeanour makes the right statement in a jazz club. He’s not toe-curlingly schmaltzy, like some wannabe jazz singers tend to be, and you feel that he doesn’t take himself too seriously even if that’s the way he prefers his music. Live it all starts on 5 May at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival as a duo with Nathaniel Facey playing original tunes and Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Eric Dolphy material, and continues usually as a vocals-piano trio with Jackson joined by bassist Shane Allessio and drummer Jason Reeve. Dates are 606, London (8 May); Soundcellar, Poole (9 May); Stables, Wavendon (14 May); Chapel Arts, Bath (18 May); Pizza Express, Maidstone (24 May); Jam Factory, Oxford (26 May); Dean Clough, Halifax (30 May); Matt and Phred’s, Manchester (31 May); and Tom Thumb Theatre, Margate (6, 8 June). SG
Too cool just to croon: Theo Jackson, above
Charles Lloyd/Jason Moran
Sometimes with instrumental jazz it’s like non-fiction: the facts, the history, the issues all there contained in the music in the notes on the page. The vocals variety can be the fiction, the metaphors, the fantasies, the reimaginings. The characters portrayed. Only rarely, and usually it’s only in the work of a truly great instrumentalist, the kind who can move you, make you even not think about music but of life itself, that can produce in their art a synthesis of the two so that as tactile notes with their musicological resources it exists, but equally beyond there is a life force that summons some sort of imagined life, a world away from reality.
Well, Charles Lloyd is one of those artists, he combines in his non-fictive way as an instrumentalist the fictive properties inherent in Ellingtonia (Strayhorn’s ‘Pretty Girl’ and Duke’s ‘Mood Indigo’), with the narrative shockingly real family history in the five-part ‘Hagar Suite’ about Lloyd’s great-great-grandmother taken from her parents at just 10 and sold to a slaveowner who made her pregnant when she was only 14.
Lloyd, a deeply serious spiritual artist with a great communicator’s ability, is able to paint pictures like few others in jazz. Via flute on ‘Journey Up River’, the first part of the ‘Hagar Suite’, he provides with pianist Moran’s tumbling accompaniment (and later tambourine) an episodic element not often found in his general approach, a feature throughout the suite that provides a distinctive thread to this album.
Turning 75 this year it’s interesting that Lloyd has chosen with this new studio album, recorded last April, to reduce his quartet to a duo, its simplicity via the time machine of piano styles that Moran provides, in the fictive sense invoking a line in jazz piano almost taking the listener, say on Moran’s introduction to ‘Mood Indigo’, to Harlem in the 1930s. Lloyd is very bluesy on some tracks, but he’s capable of altering the mood throughout and the blues become a miniature requiem on one notable standout ‘I Shall Be Released’, a tribute to Levon Helm of The Band.
A great deal of the strengths on Hagar’s Song reside in the force of sheer feeling involved that act as much as a warning from the past as a hymn to the dead. Just as ‘I Shall Be Released’ is about protest it’s also about friendship. So all in all a very personal, wonderful sounding album, full of lovely moments, an oasis of contemplation in a world full of tumult, and every bit as good as the marvellous Mirror.
Released on 18 February. Side by side: Charles Lloyd top and with Jason Moran above
Saturday nights for jazz at Kings Place are quite subdued usually, and last night’s small but appreciative audience for the Hans Koller Ensemble was no exception, although the concertgoers showed their enthusiasm in a typically polite way. Hall two, or “The Base” as it’s known, I suppose to sound a bit more down-with-da-kids although looking around it was probably a case of down-with-da-grandkids, has great sightlines and a certain unclaustrophobic intimacy. But the somewhat mature audience certainly had the wisdom to turn up to hear the highly rated Hans Koller Ensemble, which a wider audience will catch when it’s broadcast on Radio 3’s Monday night show Jazz on 3 later this month. British-based German born composer, arranger, valve trombonist and pianist Koller, only in his forties, so a relative babe-in-arms compared to his great hero Mike Gibbs who he’s been working with recently in the studio, was best I thought in the first half as the Gil Evans cool school material suited the band better than the more tricksy vocal settings of poetry in German by Friedrich Hölderlin in the second. Singer Christine Tobin did her best but the overly intricate arrangements were a barrier to spontaneity and the band looked as if they were facing an uphill task. The sound mix also was a bit lopsided in the hall and did the vocals no favours but on radio it will come off differently. Koller spoke too much to the audience (he himself sensed this as he smilingly, but a bit geekily, nattered away to the audience), but of the soloists US alto saxophonist John O’Gallagher was expressive and interesting to listen to with hints of Lee Konitz here and there in his sound and his own conversational tone. Phil Robson’s sure footed harmonic grasp was always important, and it was the first opportunity to hear him in tandem with erstwhile Tomasz Stańko guitarist Jako Bro, from Denmark, whose contribution took a while to come but whose janglingly abstract style meshed well with Robson. Best moment of the evening? Definitely the band’s reading of ‘Temporarily’ an extra track that appeared on the reissue of the Jimmy Giuffre 3 Verve album Thesis, renamed 1961 when ECM reissued it. Percy Pursglove had some excellent flugelhorn runs in the second half, and gave firm direction to count in the other reeds and horns when tricky unisons where needed in the later part of the concert. Jeff Williams showed discretion and taste on drums throughout, very reminiscent of the late Paul Motian’s approach, and Koller made subtle use of Jim Rattigan on French horn in the ensemble passages, with his velvety tone peeking out in just the right spots. It might well be a case of back to the drawing board for the Hölderlin material, though: a tweak here and there might make it less doleful and heighten that latent quality with suitable contrasts.
Hans Koller, above
25/05/18 last updated
It’s a bit of a mug’s game predicting who’s going to win music industry awards, but the same could be said about not predicting who’s going to win in the Grammys tomorrow. You mean you just don’t care? OK, understood.
Last time I tried this exercise was before the Jazz FM awards and this is how I did BEFORE http://marlbank.tumblr.com/post/41706599727/jazz-fm-awards-runners-and-riders and AFTER http://marlbank.tumblr.com/post/42012416559/jazz-fm-awards-winners Excluding the already known winners out of the “should go to" or “should surely go to" stabs I got five out of ten. Not too bad. After all as Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow had it: "It is wrong to blame anyone for failing to forecast accurately in an unpredictable world." But he also added: “Claims for correct intuitions in an unpredictable situation are self-delusional at best, sometimes worse."
Moving swiftly on… let’s see if my Grammy predictions posted on Marlbank when the nominations were announced are nearer the mark. You can check on Monday when we all wake up to the results.
So, one more time, who should win and who will win in an oddly Herbie Hancock-less year.
Nominated for best Improvised jazz solo ‘Cross Roads’ Ravi Coltrane. Track from: Spirit Fiction Blue Note ‘Hot House’ Gary Burton & Chick Corea. Track from: Hot House Concord Jazz ‘Alice In Wonderland’ Chick Corea. Track from: Further Explorations (Chick Corea, Eddie Gomez & Paul Motian) Concord Jazz ‘J. Mac’ Kenny Garrett. Track from: Seeds From The Underground Mack Avenue Records ‘Ode’ Brad Mehldau. Track from: Ode (Brad Mehldau Trio) Nonesuch
Pretty good choices. A return to form for Garrett for sure. This category is probably the most subjective of the jazz ones, and it’s interesting that all the artists play in the post-bop domain and with the exception of Garrett record for major labels. The Grammys are in many ways all about the big labels.
Will win: Chick Corea. Should win: Kenny Garrett
Nominated for Best Jazz Vocal Album
Soul Shadows Denise Donatelli Savant Records 1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project Kurt Elling Concord Jazz Live Al Jarreau (And The Metropole Orkest) Concord The Book Of Chet Luciana Souza Sunnyside Records Radio Music Society Esperanza Spalding Heads Up International
Donatelli is a surprise inclusion, unknown outside America, and it’s good to see Souza long on many people’s radar getting recognition.
Will win: Esperanza Spalding. Should win: Esperanza Spalding
Nominated for Best Jazz Instrumental Album
Further Explorations Chick Corea, Eddie Gomez & Paul Motian Concord Jazz Hot House Chick Corea & Gary Burton Concord Jazz Seeds From The Underground Kenny Garrett Mack Avenue Records Blue Moon Ahmad Jamal Jazz Village Unity Band Pat Metheny Unity Band Nonesuch
A strong list. Chick is a Grammy darling and you can’t rule him out here especially as his reimagining of Bill Evans on Further Explorations was such an imaginative exercise, and a poignant reminder of the much missed Motian. But, the big but, with Pat Metheny also in the running (the most beGrammied jazz musician ever) and more importantly the sheer vitality of his “with sax” Unity Band quartet he’s nominated for this time the Academy might just be swayed once again in his favour. It should be Ahmad Jamal’s year, but let’s not hold our breath even though the album is a credit to the great Pittsburgian and a wake-up call to pianists half or even a quarter of his age.
Will win: Unity Band. Should win: Blue Moon
Nominated for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album Centennial: Newly Discovered Works Of Gil Evans Gil Evans Project ArtistShare For The Moment Bob Mintzer Big Band MCG Jazz Dear Diz (Every Day I Think Of You) Arturo Sandoval Concord Jazz
Bit of a ho hum selection (and only three names), although they’re all class acts. The Evans album was also up for a Jazz FM award in January.
Will win: Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans.Should win: Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans
Nominated for Best Latin Jazz Album
Flamenco Sketches Chano Domínguez Blue Note ¡Ritmo! The Clare Fischer Latin Jazz Big Band Clare Fischer Productions/Clavo Records Multiverse Bobby Sanabria Big Band Jazzheads Duos III Luciana Souza Sunnyside Records New Cuban Express Manuel Valera New Cuban Express Mavo Records
Hard to predict this one but Domínguez is the coming man with the imprimatur of no less a figure than Wynton Marsalis in his back catalogue, although Sanabria could get the nod.
Will win: Flamenco Sketches Should win: Flamenco Sketches
In other major categories Gregory Porter is surely a shoo-in for ‘Real Good Hands’ in the best traditional R&B performance category (why’s he not in jazz vocals?), and Hugh Masekela is up for a world music nod (again, categories, categories). Robert Glasper again is not in a jazz category but is up for best R&B album for Black Radio and best R&B performance for the Ledisi track ‘Gonna Be Alright (F.T.B)’, a sign the way his career is perceived to be going, while Dr John is nominated for the very fine Locked Down in the blues category. Finally, the category no one wants to be in, apart from obviously the nominees, the pop instrumental album nominees with Gerald Albright & Norman Brown, Chris Botti, Larry Carlton, Arun Shenoy, and of course Dave Koz, all vying for the accolade no-one surely can deep down want.
Gregory Porter, beyond category, above
Ballads (Quiet Money Recordings **** RECOMMENDED) is the Liane Carroll album we’ve all been waiting for, and surpasses her greatest and considerable achievements to date, such as her quietly moving 2003 album, Billy No Mates, or the way, live, she sings ‘You Don’t Know Me’ with that despairing rebuke in her voice. We’ll have to wait a bit longer until April for the release of the 11 songs of Ballads, such sad lingering ones, with their demon eyes blazing furiously, or simply gazing slackly as the song demands, the mood set in terms of interpretation by the resigned quietly dark despair in the ambivalent ‘Here’s to Life’, as good in its different way as the superlative version of the song on Barbra Streisand’s Love is the Answer. Another early album peak of Ballads is the Sammy Cahn/Jimmy van Heusen song Sinatra made his own, ‘Only the Lonely’, set for big band by a 21st century Nelson Riddle, Chris Walden, its opening lyric: ‘Each place I go/only the lonely go’, could even be the maxim for an album that as a journey to intimacy thrives on isolation as in the stark Gwilym Simcock piano accompaniment to ‘Mad About the Boy’, or returning to the theme explicitly on ‘The Two Lonely People’, Carroll’s expression by times hotly emotional or icily cold depending on the mood she’s conveying. Be warned though, it’s not a depressing album in any way, as her version of ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?’ more than affirms. Yet it’s definitely music for the night, of the night and about the night, and the emotions expressed at that time of the day when few are around to hear them. In a sense it’s a confessional album gathering together many classic complementary songs cleverly collected and interpreted that espouse loneliness, loss, but above all a longing for love. Carroll is at her most heartfelt and life-affirming on Todd Rundgren’s ‘Pretending to Care’ from 1985’s A Cappella with a remarkable, pingingly-pure, top note at a crucial arc of the song. The wait for Ballads has to be worth it. Stephen Graham
Released on 15 April.
Liane Carroll above headlines the new Brilliant Corners festival in Belfast on 23 March
Last year, before Accelerando was released, I wrote in Jazzwise that “the Vijay Iyer Trio has the potential to alter the scope, ambition and language of jazz piano forever.” And after seeing the trio once again last night, the first time since their two-night stay at the Vortex last May, I’ll stick by that. That easily ascertained potential has been brewing a long time (since Panoptic Modes) and has probably by now reached a tipping point, as the trio is already influencing new bands such as the highly promising Dice Factory as well as a generation of music students. Iyer presumably is being taught in the more progressively minded conservatoires already, and he had the published sheet music of the tunes with him, he told the audience last night (“just three copies”). He’s also teaching go-ahead workshops himself when not on the road and today he’s doing one in Rotterdam as the tour moves to the continent, and Iyer has already taken the reins at the advanced Banff Centre jazz and creative workshop in Canada succeeding Dave Douglas there.
The much talked about phrase “maths jazz” or “math jazz” if you’re American is relevant with Iyer, although there’s clearly no algorithm at work, thankfully. It may be a hindrance more than a help but terminology is lacking with this remarkable pianist/composer so far, and it’s needed for descriptive purposes, as the music is still so new-sounding, and also so expansive. Even though essentially it’s a straightforward piano trio (and there are so many of these) and Iyer’s use of droney tambura-like electronics is fairly limited (on ‘Accelerando’ here) the trio covers vast swathes of territory musically. Often the three (Iyer with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore) improvise in different time signatures and operate on pulses as much as rhythms, with the tunes throwing up different possibilities. Sometimes there’s a hint of reggae, other times it’s Herbie Nichols-flavoured bebop. I was a little disappointed by the interpretation of ‘Human Nature’ which only got going after a while, Vijay seemed a bit stiff, helped along though by eager audience noises, and Iyer is possibly not at his best covering relatively straightforward songs. His solo piano recorded version of the Michael Jackson-associated song I think is his best interpretation of it rather than the arrangement for trio. Also, if you compare the way the trio interprets MIA’s ‘Galang’ (not played here) it’s much more immersive and the more sophisticated the song is the better for Iyer, hence the very effective treatment of Rod Temperton’s ‘The Star of a Story’.
Iyer used heavy volume increasingly for more visceral effects as the set unfolded, so while the early medley that featured ‘Bode’ had a more improv-inclined sensibility, with Crump to the fore, later the set could have become a more rock-inclined jam with all the extra volume and Iyer’s big chords drawing increased excitement. Crump was very much on form and the excellent sound in the Purcell Room captured his vibrato and bowed effects admirably, while Gilmore is so expert at anticipating the direction of the music and adding his own ideas: he’s constantly there with a rhythm that’s more like an astringent melody unto itself. When he plays softly too, it’s a rhapsody on the drums. Somehow I think the trio’s music will be modified and possibly simplified as the years go by as it is so far ahead of what anyone can reasonably take in at one hearing no matter how many times you have heard the trio play. Scope, ambition, language: it’s all there with the Vijay Iyer trio, as this powerful unit goes from strength to strength, with Tirtha tune ‘Abundance’ the pick of the set.
The Vijay Iyer trio top. Photo taken at the German ECHO awards (Monique Wuestenhagen/ACT)
Look at the cover of Simon Spillett’s Square One and within the ‘N’ of the ‘One’, behind saxophonist Simon Spillett is a bridge, Barnes railway bridge no less, not far from Spillett’s spiritual home in terms of London jazz clubs, the venerable mainstream redoubt the Bull’s Head. It’s the most doctrinaire of jazz clubs to its detractors; the most ‘proper’, or, ‘purist’, to its supporters, as the pub jazz club is a popular spot for mainly mainstream, straightahead and 1950s hard bop in terms of most of the bands it puts on. Spillett is a self confessed purist and recently this comment was attributed to him: “Jazz will only survive if people are exposed to the music in its purest form.” This actually isn’t particularly helpful as it requires someone to step forward and presumably spell out what jazz purism is. Of course, Spillett is the one to fill that gap, and lets the music do the talking on this question, remarkable for someone who seems much older than his years (he was born after all only in 1974). Why do we need jazz in its purest form, anyway? Surely its hybrid nature from the very start, and broad appeal across continents and stylistic boundaries, makes such an attitude almost impossible to substantiate leaving the very notion just a pliable mantra that means one thing to one person, and a completely different thing to another.
When you hear Square One, instinctively, you can see why the art director of this Gearbox vinyl release, and presumably Spillett himself signing it off, would make this link (the image also appears on Spillett’s website). You can draw a line back via pianist John Critchinson here to Ronnie Scott’s regular band, which Critch for many years was a member of, and long before that back to the Scott and Tubby Hayes co-led Jazz Couriers. Spillett is an expert on Tubby Hayes and here with Spillett’s quartet are drummer Clark Tracey and bassist Alec Dankworth joining Critchinson, all four of them keeping the Hayes spirit well and truly alive. Gearbox makes great play of its all-analogue ethos, and at a time when vinyl is selling more than it has done in years there’s clearly an appetite out there, refreshing in a big way, as we have all become so inured to the terrible audio quality of MP3s. How could we satisfy ourselves that listening to the audio equivalent of a photocopy is good enough for regular use? It’s a mystery that the upsurge in vinyl partly solves: as if enough is enough!
Like the label Spillett is keen to stress the purist approach he takes, and this is bound to raise a few hackles. There is a certain deliberately retro sense of déjà vu on the run-of-the-mill, though spirited, version of ‘A Night in Tunisia’, the stock in the pot. The other choices are better with Jimmy Deuchar’s ‘Bass House’, and Dizzy Reece’s ‘Shepherd’s Serenade’ the main meat, sure to appeal to fans of 1950s and 1960s bop. (‘Serenade’ appeared on the Tony Hall-produced Blues in Trinity, with Hayes taking a wondrous solo on the original 1958 session.) The other tracks, ‘Square One’, Spillett’s own; Mexican songwriter Armando Manzanero’s ‘Yesterday I Heard The Rain’, taken at a formidable clip; and Cole Porter’s ‘In The Still of the Night’ all slip down nicely, and you’d swear if you closed your eyes you were sat at Ronnie Scott’s about half- past-nine in the days before the set times were moved to an earlier point in the evening, listening to the house band, who would often or not have sounded just like this. Critchinson himself (Spillett wasn’t on the scene then) might have been playing the old club piano. I’m not though totally convinced by Spillett’s approach, afraid in a way that the purism is a barrier to more eclectic tastes, but the playing is of a very high standard and it is enjoyable, with great unfettered drive from Clark Tracey who sounds as if he’s in his element. I’ve only heard a digital version of the album so far but I’m sure on vinyl it’s even better, and the track I heard in the Gearbox mastering studio on the in-house deck towards the end of last year certainly had presence. And that’s the whole point: it’s additive free, non glossy, hoary hard bop that values core qualities. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this even if somehow you feel it’s that ultimate romantic gesture, an obsession by Spillett to capture a moment and sound in time and stick to it regardless.
This record will stir debate for sure in terms of “progress” in jazz, to do with repertory, and old styles, although they’re still a musical lingua franca, and above all, 1950s jazz nostalgia. Beyond that and on its own terms the music is beautifully played, with a speed and energy just right for what it intends, and an undimmed passion for a music that now seems so much more of a historical style than most. Playing hard bop so close to some of the first British-based interpreters of the style, as captured on Square One, makes that resemblance all the more striking. Stephen Graham
Released on 25 February. Simon Spillett, top and the cover of Square One, above