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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

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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

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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

Vincent Peirani, above
photo: Dean Bennici / ACT

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Big apple date for Claire Martin

With the Jazzahead trade show coming up this weekend featuring a British jazz stand promoting the local scene to wider European promoters and labels, and after that the Made in the UK shows at Rochester in New York state in June with Cleveland Watkiss, YolanDa Brown, Christine Tobin, Michael Mwenso, Julian Arguelles, Soweto Kinch, Zoe Rahman, Phronesis and Gwilym Simcock all taking part this year, it’s a good time to actually look at how jazz exports itself from the UK.

Clearly these initiatives help, and regularly boost the perception and profile of UK jazz abroad. The world scene needs constantly reminding. But outside these initiatives what happens? Well, bands tour a bit if they’re picked up by local promoters confident that they can stand on their own two feet commercially and get a crowd. But it’s patchy. Sometimes a band who have strong word of mouth, say like Sons of Kemet who are playing an obscure festival in Katowice later in the month, operate independently of broader initiatives and benefit from adventurous bookers going the extra mile and taking a risk. Or if they’re long established like Courtney Pine with strong management they get booked globally for sound commercial reasons: that is they can guarantee a big crowd.

It all takes time but with a recent boost in jazz vocals in the UK artists like Claire Martin are able to get a booking in Jazz at Lincoln Center building on her New York appearance in the past while her close friend and duo partner Ian Shaw can play clubs in Canada, and the likes of instrumentalist bands the Neil Cowley Trio and Get The Blessing (partly on the back of the Made in the UK initiative) can develop their touring in America as the NCT did last year.

If there comes a time when UK jazz bands are as ubiquitous in America as say British actors in Hollywood movies are then you’ll know jazz from these shores has crossed a barrier.

That may be some time off, but with the work of Jazz Services, financial backing by UK Trade and Investment, and promoters such as ESIP and others the sheer body of evidence about the quality of the music here is a springboard to build audiences in other countries not just the States.

For some later in their careers that incubating support won’t be needed quite in the same way because an appetite for the music and its commercial standing has been established, but then it’s the new generation that can be concentrated on. But the cycle needs to be established in the first place or suddenly the old cry will go out again internationally: where’s all the British jazz, to furrowed brows and general puzzlement. Stephen Graham

Claire Martin plays Dizzy’s in New York on 13 May www.jalc.org

 

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Jeff Williams
The Listener
Whirlwind ****
Mimimal amplification isn’t something that’s much talked about. Who really cares if it’s really loud or soft? But this, in case you were wondering, is not a loud record at all although it’s not whispery-soft either and might make you a convert to ‘human scale’ recordings. It’s also highly relevant, along with some beautifully fractured dissonance and an implied “so what?” attitude, if a band like drummer Jeff Williams’ quartet finds itself within the realm of the Cool School, a sound partly identified with the lodestar of Lee Konitz. Williams, who’s on another deeply Konitzian record Always A First Time recently released goes to that softly echoing well again and again here, inevitably maybe, after performing so much with Konitz in the 1980s and 1990s.

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Williams can sound like the late Paul Motian at times but really it’s not an issue hunting down the lineage because this album more than stands on its own eight feet. Trumpeter Duane Eubanks (younger brother of silky guitar star Kevin and fine Dave Holland trombonist Robin) has a pleasantly deadpan way with falling phrases and plenty of power, and the unduly underrated but appealingly dislocated sound on alto saxophone of John O’Gallagher, who appeared with Williams in Hans Koller’s Ensemble at Kings Place earlier in the year, and rated bassist John Hébert, complete the band. Remember that remarkable record Byzantine Monkey of Hébert’s?

Anyway, The Listener knows where it lives in terms of style, which is always an advantage; and the composing is excellent working piece by piece to build the record into something special. It’s formal in terms of band discipline and yet somehow informal as the style is if you like a satire on society, an outsider’s music. Mostly the tunes are by Williams with Eubanks tune ‘Beer and Water’ opening, Hébert chipping in on ‘Fez’ which the May 2012 Vortex club audience really got, judging by the big applause, and finishing with the sentimental Saul Chaplin and Sammy Cahn standard ‘Dedicated to You.’  

Released on 4 June

Jeff Williams pictured top, and the album cover above   

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Kit Downes Quintet
Light From Old Stars

Basho ****
Really seeing stars? Possibly not as the title of pianist Downes’ latest refers to the long-held theory that the stars in the night sky have already died. Combining a variety of elements from chamber jazz signifiers in the arranging style through to free improv, on a track such as ‘Owls’, leavened by the more cinematic “road movie” conception of ‘Outlaws’, or the remoulded ‘jam’ blow-out feel of ‘What’s the Rumpus’, this is Kit Downes’ best album to date. Highlights are ‘Bley Days’, which the quintet played live on selected dates last year, Downes’ homage to the often neglected Paul Bley, and the final track is clearly named as a tribute for the lost leader of Swedish jazz, pianist Jan Johansson who died at the young age of 37 in 1968. Johansson is best known for his classic album Jazz på svenska (‘Jazz in Swedish’), which used European folk music as an ingredient for jazz improvisation, one of the first to do so. ‘Jan Johansson’ is a quietly yearning dream-like track that begins with a scamperingly laidback James Maddren rhythm, a low piano rumble, and a lovely melody line that Downes and cellist Lucy Railton state in unison before the softly unfolding melody line ascends. 
Out now. The quintet play Jazz in the Round on Monday http://thecockpit.org.uk/show/jazz_in_the_round

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Arne Jansen
The Sleep of Reason – Ode to Goya
ACT ***
It’s not often an Ondes Martenot appears on a jazz record. It’s more likely to be on a Muse or Radiohead album, but come to think of it there aren’t many albums that pay homage to an eighteenth-century Spanish painter.

Guitarists as accomplished as Arne Jansen, best known for his work with the Jazzanova live shows, aren’t exactly two-a-penny either: his greatly varied approach on Steve Vai-like electric, all blustery and with plenty of power, as well as acoustic guitar where he plays in a style that falls somewhere between Kurt Rosenwinkel and Egberto Gismonti, immediately appeals.

Eleven tracks mostly composed by Jansen with a sentimental reading of Mark Knopfler’s ‘Brothers in Arms’ at the end allow the Berlin-based player to show just what he can do, not so much technically as it’s quickly clear that this is to be taken as read, but in terms of nuanced interpretation.

A real storyteller Jansen studied at workshops led by Pat Metheny, most obviously an influence on ‘Divina’, and John Abercrombie, and he’s learnt a great deal from these masters over the course of a well established career by now. Drummer Eric Schaefer, of hit piano trio [em], is a driving presence meshing well with lively bassist Andreas Edelmann in tow, and shows great maturity on ‘Love is Blindness’, what could have been an overblown U2 embarrassment but which is instead an early highlight.

The Ondes Martenot, by the way, is wielded sparingly by Friedrich Paravicini on the Achtung Baby track but even though The Sleep of Reason sounds as if it’s all proggy (the amusing if ludicrously titled ‘The Great He-Goat’, otherwise known as ‘Witches Sabbath’, veers in that direction), it’s not.

More of a power rock album slightly sagging in the middle the album nonetheless is remarkable for a pristine and much better jazz inlay, beautifully set amid all this gilt. Jansen has tremendous talent. Hopefully some of the overpowering rock (and flamenco on ‘Tauromaquia’) will be lopped off next time he comes to record. There’s too much talent here to be wasted on poodle rock posturing.
Released at the end of May

Stephen Graham

Eric Schaefer (above left), Arne Jansen, and Andreas Edelmann photo: ACT

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Basquiat Strings
Part two
F-IRE **** Recommended
Opening with the aching squall of ‘Calum Campbell’ Part Two was recorded two years on from the Basquiats’ picking up what was a welcome but surprise Mercury nomination in 2007 but has waited until this year to be released. As previously reported in marlbank the new-look Basquiats, with Fly Agaric polymath Fred Thomas on board playing bass, are touring soon, but this is the familiar line-up. What set them apart from other strings groups who play jazz in the first place was the contribution of Seb Rochford, the remarkable Polar Bear drummer who’s also featured on the acclaimed new Rokia Traoré record Beautiful Africa.

But the Basquiats are first and foremost the vision of cellist Ben Davis and all the tunes and arrangements apart from ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ are his, and they are as simpático to a jazz way of being within the loose framework of serialism as you could wish. His wonderfully expressive solo on ‘Hop Scotch’ also shows his great facility as a performer, the solo emerging organically to make a strong impact.

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 Achingly “as one”, violinists Emma Smith and Vicky Fifield, with viola player Jennymay Logan, bassist Richard Pryce, Davis and Rochford are a true unit and it’s a shame in a way this is a time machine recording although when Davis tours with the new-look band the spirit I’m sure will remain.

The Basquiats stand tall with radio.string.quartet.vienna and the Atom String Quartet but they’re perhaps closer to the experimental jazz approach in essence than both these impressive outfits. On Basquiat Strings With Seb Rochford  the musicians were able to reimagine material such as Ornette Coleman’s ‘Lonely Woman’, and Ornette’s spirit hovers benignly on the new record as well, But on Emma Smith’s solo on ‘History of Her’, the third track, there’s a sense of even more jazz delving and the improvising takes on a still more natural dimension than on the first record. Smith (and Rochford for that matter) are on the new Ellington in Anticipation record, one of the best new jazz records from Britain in years, and her work here, soloing on three tracks, can be listened to happily along Mark Lockheart’s fine record even if it predates it. A uniformly excellent album, well worth seeking out. SG

The album cover top and Ben Davis right

Released on 13 May

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Jazzahead in Bremen later this week promises a feast of music and much new jazz in store, and there’s a major opportunity to sample a great deal of new sounds resolutely below the radar, brand new or just under known. It’s not just about live music, though, as the jazz music business gathers en masse in the German city in increasing numbers each year, the event having taken on the mantle of a latterday MIDEM for jazz. Here’s a brief look at what’s on offer this year. The partner country in 2013 is Israel, and there are many new and established Israeli jazz acts appearing in Bremen. Also look out for a broad cross-section of the host country Germany’s burgeoning scene often little known internationally, as well as jazz from all over Europe and beyond. On Thursday 25 April check out Yotam, and the Omer Klein Trio as a taster while on Friday 26 April the Olivia Trummer trio, Avishai Cohen trio, and the jazz@Israel jam session are distinct highlights. Saturday 27 April has a British presence with Zoe Rahman, Beats & Pieces, and Django Bates all appearing. Also worth making a point to catch are the Helge Lien trio from Norway, Belgian pace setters De Beren Gieren, and the unique sound of Elina Duni and her quartet.
More at http://www2.jazzahead.de/en 

Zoe Rahman above

Cæcilie Norby
Silent Ways
ACT ***1/2

With the husky Danish singer’s take on the opening track here of Duffy’s ‘Stepping Stone’ one of the surprise highlights of the various artists Magic Moments 6: In the Spirit of Jazz compilation recently I was looking forward to Silent Ways. And this is quite a band joining Norby typically expressive and in control. With her are her husband, brilliant bassist Lars Danielsson; the dynamic pianist Leszek Możdżer; Vietnamese guitarist Nguyên Lê and the less familiar Turkish/Swedish drummer Robert Mehmet Ikiz; along with saxophonist Marius Neset, on the ACT radar I think for the first time as a tasteful guest, especially on ‘Have You Ever Seen the Rain’ by Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty.

Leonard Cohen’s ‘In My Secret Life’, from 2001 album Ten New Songs, brings out the best of Norby here, and in some ways it’s even better than ‘Stepping Stone’. Mostly rock covers Możdżer lays out a solo on the Cohen song stocked here with a vocabulary of melodic imagination all of his own that takes the breath away while Norby luxuriates in the song. Not everything works: I wish Norby didn’t sing Dylan quite the way she does in such a cabaret style, but her infinitely pleasant easygoing blues vocal manner taps into a kind of a tradition you don’t often hear nowadays. Her middle of the road version of Paul Simon’s ‘Hearts and Bones’ could be played again and again on Radio 2, but probably won’t be.

Highlights? Well, Lê’s poignant solo on the title track is beautifully interpreted; and his interplay with the singer is a real education. But if you’re looking to Norby to ‘do edgy’ then forget about it. If, though, you’d prefer a singer who delivers quality interpretations of a range of mostly well chosen songs, then step this way. SG

Released at the end of May
Cæcilie Norby, top. Photo: Stephen Freiheit

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There’s a new jazz and cinema two-part series beginning next Monday at 10pm on Radio 2 presented by singer/pianist Jamie Cullum whose latest album Momentum is released in May. The hour-long first part of Jazz at the Movies focuses on early cinema history, the struggle for racial equality and the discrimination African American musicians faced, and there’s an emphasis on Duke Ellington’s ‘Symphony in Black’. Cullum looks at how cartoon character Betty Boop broke down the racial and sexual conventions of the day although she was later censored, and concentrates on Ellington’s music for Anatomy of a Murder, and Martial Solal’s for Godard’s Breathless (A Bout De Souffle).

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Nigel Mooney
The Bohemian Mooney
Lyte Records****
Named after a Dublin pub The Bohemian Mooney is the Irish singer and guitarist’s bluesy second album following All My Love’s In Vain back in 2005. Nearly four years in the can the new record features a core band of pianist Johnny Taylor, bassist Dan Bodwell and drummer Dominic Mullan, and guests include the great Georgie Fame on a couple of tracks and the Irish jazz icon Louis Stewart who plays rhythm guitar on three tracks.

Mooney has a warm authentic blues and soul voice, think James Hunter a bit, a dash of Van Morrison here and there, and Brother Ray of course, and plays the guitar like Kenny Burrell at times. It’s old fashioned jazz blues with some Mooney originals, some Ray Charles (a swinging ‘Ain’t That Love’ a highlight), standards in ‘April in Paris’ for instance, and a traditional blues thrown in for good measure with Robert Johnson’s ‘Hellhound on my Trail’ superbly done.

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‘Hard Times’ is the first great interpretation here, five songs in, after some enjoyable scene-setting with Georgie and Louis on ‘Down for Double’, Basie guitarist Freddie Green’s song that Mel Tormé put words to. ‘April in Paris’ is a bit cheesier with glossy horns but there’s a good swing shuffle from Mullan and Mooney croons a bit which he doesn’t really do anywhere else on the album.

Arranged and produced by Mooney the title track has a really catchy guitar opening line (recalling the tune of ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’) that moves more into Grant Green territory after a while and bassist Bodwell rises to the occasion sounding a bit like that fine player David Hayes. ‘Bohemian Moondance’ joins the dots between the opening fast take on ‘Milestones’ and Van Morrison’s ‘Moondance’ with plenty of improvising along the way. Infectious stuff with a lot of spirit, and that’s not just the gin and dry vermouth. SG 
The cover of The Bohemian Mooney
top and Nigel Mooney above

Released on 27 May

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Melt Yourself Down
Melt Yourself Down
Leaf **

This is disappointing. It just has nowhere to go. Fizzing with energy but within the confines of a small musical structure trying to be a commercial dance record (maybe the remix will be better!), it beats at the walls but the walls simply won’t give. Ruth Goller’s bass guitar is gutsy enough on the opener ‘Fix My Life’ but the vocals of Kushal Gaya sound so processed and it’s not dangerous enough or as inventive as say Sons of Kemet, another band drummer Tom Skinner’s currently a member of. Pete Wareham has been searching for a way to reinvent himself since the curious decision to close down the much better Acoustic Ladyland and he’s moved completely away from conventional jazz and more into the arms of one of his big influences James Chance, mixing punk-funk with Afro flavours. The band seem to stall no matter how hard Tom Skinner pushes, and even Shabaka Hutchings sounds as if he’s being held back. Transglobal Underground’s Satin Singh adds some interest on percussion, but these eight pent-up tracks refuse to catch: the material just isn’t strong enough. Stephen Graham
 

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Laszlo Gardony
Clarity
Sunnyside ***

When Tommy Smith was starting out, and a student at Berklee in Boston, the young saxophonist was part of a band called Forward Motion. The pianist in the band, Laszlo Gardony, a Hungarian-American has made many records since but retains the link to Smith’s alma mater, as since the 1980s the professor has taught at Berklee. Clarity is an unusual, and quite brave, album. He says in the notes: “I was at my Berklee studio all by myself. I felt a burst of inspiration so I set up some mics, turned on a recorder and started playing. I kept playing for 49 minutes.” Each short piece, he explains, took on from the previous one but he put the recording away; and not until a few months later would he listen to what he had performed last year. The resulting album, so much for months spent in the studio and an eternity in post-production, is probably best compared with earlier solo piano album Changing Standards (1990), the originals here the yin to the yang of the evergreen tunes back then. Despite the passage of time and difference in method the two compare very well: Gardony’s approach is muscular but quite passionate, and it’s from the fourth track, ‘Working Through (Clarity)’, that the music really begins to speak. It’s a kind of Gnostic meditation in the manner of Keith Jarrett (and track six, ‘Better Place’, is very Jarrettian) but with a few bravura twists, quite a lot of folk music, even gospel, but oddly very little bebop. Occasionally this very spontaneous set sags, but not for long, and is as honest an album as you’ll come across. That transparency is its strength and appeal, as well as a natural improviser’s flair at play.
Released in May.
The cover of Clarity, above

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Matt Ridley, Vortex, London: Monday

Whirlwind Recordings, bassist Michael Janisch’s label, has shown consistent growth in terms of output and quality in the last two years and ahead of releasing a new live album by Lee Konitz soon, a landmark release for Whirlwind, the label has now signed the Matt Ridley Trio for an autumn release with the bassist’s debut album Thymos (Greek for ‘spiritedness’) set to appear in the autumn. With alto saxophone star Jason Yarde guesting, bassist Ridley, a Trinity college of music graduate in 2005, will preview tunes from the album at this Vortex club show. The bassist’s trio features John Turville, whose Parliamentary award-winning album Midas, first put the pianist on the map, along with relative unknown George Hart on drums. Pretty much a complete unknown himself still, Ridley has, though, worked extensively as a member of the popular Darius Brubeck Quartet touring widely, and has appeared with the MJQ Celebration band featuring Jim Hart, Barry Green, and Steve Brown, as well as the Lyric Ensemble. A SE London Collective scenester Ridley has also collaborated with celebrated oudist Attab Haddad, who is an additional guest on Thymos. His trip to east London is just the start for a player whose name we might well have to more acquainted with before too long.
Matt Ridley above
Tickets, and more details, at www.vortexjazz.co.uk

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‘Put it in the pocket’
Freddie Hubbard
From Liquid Love
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bNWqyaLlolg
Compilations are anathema to most serious jazz fans or at best a guilty pleasure. But despite this there’s always a function in a compilation even if it’s a throwaway item and maybe a single track, if you’re lucky, just cries out to be heard such as this Freddie Hubbard gem linked to above.

Compilations are ideal though for dipping your toes in the waters of a style you don’t know or catching up on a movement that’s passed you by. But sometimes the sheer brutal force of a style lumped together can also show that despite artists’ best intentions to be individual their sound is more generic than they might well think, or listeners even realise catching their output in isolation.

The Demon music group’s Harmless Records for a decade has been putting out compilations in quantity covering, soul, and funk and next month Backbeats: In The Pocket – 70s Jazz Funk is coming, released on 13 May.

In the wake of whosampled.com all the detective work involved in sourcing these tiny slabs of dancefloor pleasure is easier. But there’s still an art in making a compilation even when the process is democratised: you can’t vote for knowledge, more’s the pity. Compilers Dean Rudland and Ralph Tee are some of the best in the business and Backbeats features music compiled from Columbia, Arista, Epic, RCA and CTI releases in a decade where this style of jazz gave way to disco.

Tracks here are Earth Wind and Fire’s ‘Africano’ from That’s the Way of the World; Herbie Hancock’s ‘Just Around The Corner’ from Manchild; Webster Lewis’ ‘Barbara Ann’ from Touch My Love; Ramsey Lewis’ ‘Brazilica’ from Salongo; Lonnie Liston Smith’s ‘In the Park’ from Love is the Answer; Harvey Mason’s ‘Hop Scotch’ from Marching in the Streets; Eddie Russ’ ‘Zauis’ from See the Light Monument; Freddie Hubbard’s ‘Put it in the Pocket’ from Liquid Love; Charles Earland’s ‘Coming to You Live’ from Coming to You Live; Weldon Irvine’s ‘Sinbad’ from RCA album Sinbad; Willie Bobo’s ‘Palos’ from Bobo; and Hubert Laws’ ‘Chicago Theme (Love Loop)’ from The Chicago Theme.

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Some festivals hang around for ages to name their line-ups. Others don’t. So while the Edinburgh jazz festival in July is still a blank sheet as far as the line-up is concerned (wonder why?), Kings Place in London in September has announced its. The festival crams in well over 100 events over three days at the York Way complex near St Pancras station and St Martin’s art college. This year the festival runs from 13-15 September and besides jazz there’s lots of classical music, art and talks. Oddarrang, Slowly Rolling Camera, Vive and Jay Rayner’s Hungry Jazz: The Great American (Foodie) Songbook are first day highlights; while Saturday picks include singer Aimua Eghobamien, the Martin Speake trio, Nicolas Meier, and ECM band, Food. The Jason Rebello trio and Dave Stapleton’s Cellophony play on the Sunday. More at www.kingsplace.co.uk/festival

Dionne Bennett, of Slowly Rolling Camera, above.
Photo: Tim Dickeson

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Seven Hills: imbued with the spirit of Bill Evans

Alexi Tuomarila
Seven Hills
Edition ***1/2
Listen to 02, and Dark Eyes, and you’ll start to gain a glimpse of a hugely talented pianist whose much interrupted story starts again with Seven Hills. The Finn, also well known in Belgium having studied and lived there and where his wider reputation gained ground, has had his ups and downs as a fickle major label built him up and knocked him down before Tomasz Stańko, a great appreciator of piano talent, brought him into the fold to record Dark Eyes in 2009. Seven Hills, relating in its title to Lisbon, not the more obvious Rome,is increasingly, as the album develops, imbued with the spirit of Bill Evans and it’s a feeling that grows and grows like a rhapsody. With Tuomarila are highly cultured bassist Mats Eilertsen who’s also a member of Tord Gustavsen’s ensemble, and ex-Stańko drummer Olavi Louhivuori, plus Lisbon-born guitarist André Fernandes, who plays a little like Jakob Bro, on a couple of tracks. Nine tracks in all, beginning with the guitar-flavoured title track highlights are the fast flow of ‘Cyan’ decanting into unaffected melodicism; later ‘Visitor Q’ is gloriously quiet and unvarnished; and then Eilertsen’s bass opening to the folkloric ‘Miss’ has an involving poignancy that the album as a whole shares without being twee at all. The earlier ‘Skuld’ draws together a range of influences, again Bill Evans and perhaps Jan Johansson, with Eilertsen’s buzzy drone and jump-off riff bringing out the subtlety of Louhivuori, as Tuomarila measures his solo like a surveyor with a theodolite. SG
Alexi Tuomarila, above. Photo: Edition

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Ideal for Record Store Day, Cardiff jazz indie Edition, partnering with London vinyl specialists Gearbox, has released a limited heavyweight vinyl edition of Kenny Wheeler, Norma Winstone, and London Vocal Project’s Mirrors, a big highlight of the springtime jazz releases so far this year.

With all music by Kenny Wheeler, the poetry of Stevie Smith (1902-1971) lies at its heart, and Wheeler’s music has meshed with it perfectly. But it’s not just Smith whose work forms the text for the vocals element, here interpreted by the  25-strong LVP split into sopranos, altos, tenors and basses, with Wheeler joining on flugelhorn, Winstone the featured solo singer, pianist Nikki Iles, Polar Bear’s Mark Lockheart on saxophones, bassist Steve Watts, and drummer James Maddren. Besides settings of Smith’s work, the highlight of which for me is the delightful ‘Black March’ (‘I have a friend/At the end/Of the world’), there are settings of Lewis Carroll, and briefly WB Yeats.

Delight is a word that constantly springs to mind, an echo of ‘I sing this song for your delight’ on ‘Humpty Dumpty’ at the beginning. The singing is lovely throughout, ethereal, and endowed with a life force all of its own. Somehow everything manages to remain understated yet has impact, the unique charm of the album.

www.recordstoreday.co.uk/participating-stores

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What goes around: Local record shops are back from the dead

Record Store Day isn’t just about the special editions and novelty items released for the big day today. It’s primarily about going to a record shop. That’s actually stepping foot in one. For most people now it is a distinctly odd experience to do just this as it’s a thing that has gone out of fashion. When CDs were new the music industry predicted for years that the end was nigh for vinyl, and now the writing is on the wall for CDs, yet they too are still with us. The last two years has against all industry wisdom seen a big uplift in vinyl sales. Ask a label such as Gearbox who have responded with enthusiasm to the turn-up in trade and they’ll tell you about their Record Store Day plans, and that’s just for one. More at: http://www.marlbank.net/post/47693394770/record-store-day-approaches-hip-to-the-beat.

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Sphere: Barronial sounds

While genuinely rare vinyl attracts often staggeringly high prices on a par with a particularly fine vintage wine, relatively recent releases, particularly 1970s and 80s pressings of hard-to-find albums can still be snapped up for less than £10. And of course there’s the added bonus of artwork coming with the vinyl, and album information that digital formats are less equipped to handle unless you like tiny thumb nails run off on a home printer. But it’s not really about trophy items. Pop in, like I did earlier in the week, to an old favourite shop such as Alan’s in north London, where I was delighted to pick up Sphere’s Flight Path. Put out in 1983 a decade that many from the counter-culture generation thought was the death of music itself, on the back of this white Elektra Musician liveried cardboard cover there’s a pipe-smoking Charlie Rouse and the band grouped around him (that’s Buster Williams, the great Kenny Barron and Ben Riley) simply smiling. Put on first track ‘If I Should Lose You’ and you’ll join me in smiling too. And that’s what great music does, and you’ll find it nearer to you than you might think, in a last record shop standing, or not, and not just on Record Store Day. SG 

www.recordstoreday.co.uk/participating-stores

Miles Davis Quintet
Live in Europe 1969: The Bootleg Series Vol. 2
Columbia/Legacy (3 CDs and a DVD) ****

Recorded live in France, Sweden and Germany separated by less than four months these quintet recordings are a curiosity, the work of what’s being called a ‘lost band’ or more optimistically ‘the third great quintet’. It never released a studio album. The bootleg in the subtitle is slightly deceptive as these are official recordings made by European radio stations, not the work of fly-by-night characters with microphones hidden in their coats, and follow the first in the series a 1967 recording released two years ago. Miles is here with Wayne Shorter, the last remaining second quintet member besides the trumpeter; Chick Corea on electric piano and piano; Dave Holland on bass; and Jack DeJohnette, drums.

Tucked inside the box’s sleeve on the back of the pull-out notes there’s a black and white poster depicting four of the band with Wayne sporting a slight moustache caught in the middle of a solo, and Miles eyes shut standing beside him wearing leather trousers, DeJohnette at the back is in a stripy shirt, and a bearded Holland is looking down as he plays. They were even more snappily dressed in the Berlin video with Corea looking sombre.

Each album has stage introductions and share some songs although none are exactly the same in terms of tunes. There are two versions of ‘Miles Runs the Voodoo Down’, for instance, the first on the opening CD with Holland’s riff ringing clear and true. ‘Bitches Brew’ crops up on both the final CD recorded in Stockholm and on the DVD. Corea’s ‘This’ on the Stockholm CD, the producers note, Miles never officially recorded.

Downbeat writer Josef Woodward in the notes quotes Chick Corea who explains that the recordings “document an important step in Miles’ artistic development which take us from the famous suit-and-tie wearing quintet with Herbie… through to this quintet, which definitely leaned more towards the rock and beat generation.”

With electric piano and increased volume at times you can see what he means but how intense is the music? Well it’s not as in-your-face as say the Isle of Wight concert or some later studio sessions but there is plenty of fire power, the first a coiled fist within the velvet glove of ‘Sanctuary’ say and the abstractions of Corea on electric piano do give the music a very modernist edge. But contrast this with the beginning of ‘Milestones’, which sounds actually very old in the opening theme, like a jam session Miles might have played on in the earlier part of his career. Yet listen on and a transformation takes place: DeJohnette’s slashing rhythms are so very different. A track such as ‘Nefertiti’ on the second Antibes CD shows how modern the band is, the nihilism of Corea’s solo early on, say, and the blare and loneliness of ‘Sanctuary’.

George Wein’s polite introduction to the Stockholm concert leads into ‘Bitches Brew’ and this is when for me the music really gets going, more rock-inclined and getting pretty out there rapidly. DeJohnette is vital: providing rolling thunder in a makeshift laboratory. ‘This’, with its shrill opening, is an eye opener. Produced by Richard Seidel and Michael Cuscuna the set is yet another distinguished piece of curating “all in Honor of Miles Davis”. For the Miles Davis obsessive in your life, and those who are verging in that direction, it’s a must.

Stephen Graham         

 

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Nathan Haines
The Poet’s Embrace
Warner Jazz ****

At last gaining a UK release it’s the best album yet by hipster Haines playing a 1964 Selmer Mark VI

Dance music’s loss may well be jazz’s gain, as the New Zealand tenor saxophonist relocates his sound firmly within the spiritual domain. With his quartet here (pianist Kevin Field, bassist Thomas Botting, and drummer Alain Koetsier) the band journey deep into John Coltrane quartet territory rather than say Alice’s later experimentations beloved of the Mancunian Gondwana school. Dig deep, go way back and make it sincere, and Haines does this very admirably.

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Best heard on vinyl

A big gutsy sound, not too dissimilar to Alan Skidmore’s Coltranian tenor approach but with a dance floor skip inevitably folded in, on a ballad of the quality of ‘Offering’ Haines manages to reproduce the feeling Trane put into the different sounding ‘Naima’. That’s no small feat. Using vintage microphones and recording in analogue in Haines’ native New Zealand The Poet’s Embrace is detailed without being stuffy and should appeal to Impulse! obsessives everywhere. Most of the tunes are Haines’ but there’s a suitably laidback take on a tune credited here by Patrick Forge in the notes to Yusef Lateef but also confusingly in the credits to Song For My Father drummer Roy Brooks whose version of ‘Eboness’ (from 1973 Im-Hotep album Ethnic Expression) is nonetheless hugely collectable whoever the author is. Best heard, it’s almost compulsory to say, on vinyl: but the CD sound is immaculate. SG
Released on 6 May

Nathan Haines, top, and the album cover above

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Man of mystery Sam Lasserson joins Ethan Iverson above and Jeff Williams at the Vortex tomorrow

Surely Ethan Iverson won’t, will he, lean over to say ‘play it again, Sam?’ Even a whisper might be out of the question from the piano player, or the fun-loving fans in the audience bound to turn out in some number when The Bad Plus’ Iverson plays an exclusive trio club date tomorrow.

No, it’s not with The Bad Plus although he will be back on tour with the acclaimed trio in the UK soon but instead it’s with man of mystery, bassist Sam Lasserson, and the more familiar ex-Lee Konitz drummer and Dave Liebman associate, Jeff Williams whose new quartet album The Listener is released in June. But who exactly is Lasserson?

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Well, the bassist (above) is in ECM saxophonist Martin Speake’s quartet, and plays with rising star of the guitar Hannes Riepler, the “Country Gentleman” player who has been helming the burgeoning Sunday night jam downstairs at the Vortex. Lasserson obviously keeps good company.

How the polymath Iverson has hooked up with Lasserson is anyone’s guess but the pianist is a shrewd observer of the scene, and in terms of London is no stranger to the Vortex where the gig is to take place. Iverson four years ago joined Bad Plus drummer Dave King, hipster alto sensation Tim Berne, and cellist Hank Roberts in the very spot for one of the most hardcore improvising gigs ever witnessed at the cutting edge club. Be prepared to stand.
www.vortexjazz.co.uk, Saturday 20 April

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Steve Coleman and Five Elements
Functional Arrhythmias
Pi **** Album of the week
There’s always been a thirst for knowledge with Steve Coleman, and an urge to connect his musical explorations to the wider world. “The title of this recording,” the MBASE originator says in the sleeve notes, “refers to paths of modulating heartbeat-like rhythmic melodies that function similar to the contrapuntal firing of nerve impulses.” And he goes on to explain that the compositions were created spontaneously, then transcribed, and then more improvisations added to “arrive at the final compositions performed by the ensemble.” Coleman credits drummer Milford Graves for his research and music that allowed him to “first become aware of the connection between the biology of the human body, the human soul and music.”

The 14 tracks of Functional Arrhythmias feature the Five Elements in quartet or quintet formation, the main difference between the two settings being the tracks that don’t feature guitarist Miles Okazaki.

Cultured British bassist Anthony Tidd who now lives in the States is back in the Five Elements fold and he plays an important anchoring role throughout but the main drama of the record is the trialogue between saxophone, trumpet, and drums.

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When you hear a Steve Coleman record or see him live (for instance most recently with Reflex during the London Jazz Festival in 2011) the sound is immediately identifiable. After all, Coleman invented a whole sound that has influenced a new generation of what people now loosely call “maths jazz” musicians, or for those longer in the tooth, still MBASE. Musicians such as Tom Challenger and Tom Farmer most recently have followed in the wake of Vijay Iyer and before Vijay got the MBASE bug, Steve Williamson, and Barak Schmool who spread the message to his F-IRE Collective adding to other new ideas.

Its base sound is avant funk with a rough edge mixed in with bebop although as the years have gone by there are few clichés of classic bebop left. On a track such as ‘Medulla-Vagus’ there is an Afro-Cuban layer to the abstract picture Coleman paints (an element Coleman has investigated before extensively), while on an Improv-heavy ballad such as the very stark ‘Chemical Intuition’ once more Coleman’s debt to Bunky Green’s sound comes through, and Jonathan Finlayson manages to channel the late Bill Dixon a little. Sean Rickman plays time and no-time on a track such as ‘Chemical Intuition’, and when trumpet, sax and drums play separate melody and rhythm lines the true no-safety-net improvising approach can be glimpsed. This record is about the naked improvising method customised by Coleman as he explained in his method mentioned earlier. It’s uncompromising, and a worthy successor to Harvesting Semblances and Affinities his first album for Pi.

Last year I was chatting to David Murray at the London Jazz Festival launch briefly and I asked him about Curves of Life, the Paris live album he appeared on with Coleman back in the 1990s. Murray’s eyes lit up, and agreed that he thought it was some of Coleman’s best work. Although Coleman’s music is very different now but just as appealing, its essence is no different to Curves of Life. Rhythm is key, and when blocks and drum rhythms embed themselves behind the loose off-beats and off kilter momentum often implied, as on ‘Cerebrum Crossover’, a tipping point is reached. It’s another language entirely, one that now has many dialects, but Coleman is the source and this fine, inspirational album is a reminder of just what he has to say: and how potent that message still is.

Stephen Graham


Steve Coleman above and the cover of Functional Arrhythmias. Out now

    

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Paul Edis Sextet
There Will Be Time
Jazz action ***
A second release involving 27-year-old north east pianist Paul Edis, following his appearance on ACV’s Babel debut Busk released earlier this month, There Will Be Time, with a clock on the front depicting the timepiece’s hands stuck at eight minutes past ten surrounded by autumnal leaves, is a three-horn sextet full of the spirit of the Jazz Messengers even if the muted trumpet of Graham Hardy on opener ‘Administrate This!’ seems to dig back further stylistically to Rex Stewart or Buck Clayton. There are a dozen tunes, mostly written and arranged by Edis, and it’s pretty orderly modern mainstream stuff: exuberantly brassy on ‘Re: Vamp’, with Edis dismantling his chords behind the plaintive trumpet melody, and drummer Adam Sinclair lending an air of solid authority as he does throughout. Edis can sound like a disciple of Herbie Hancock or Horace Silver at times and favours accessible licks and funky solo lines but perhaps the easy going tempi make the tunes just too digestible. The funky turns and twists on ‘Sharp 9/8’, though, exhibit plenty of spirit and it’s likeable enough fare by a promising pianist. SG   

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As an enfant terrible Django Bates last played the Proms with Loose Tubes some 26 years ago, but it’s just been announced that the composer/ pianist is to return to the Proms this year to celebrate another great maverick: bebop pioneer Charlie Parker. The concert will also include the UK premiere of a new Bates piece called ‘The Study of Touch’.

Bates will be joined for the concert by his Belovèd Bird trio, the Norbotten big band from Sweden, and Ashley Slater (Freak Power) with a programme of Bird-related tunes.

The BBC Proms this year in addition to the main classical programme, dominated by Daniel Barenboim’s complete Ring cycle with the Staatskapelle Berlin also feature a gospel prom; an appearance by a cappella group Naturally 7; a performance of Frank Zappa’s ‘The Adventures of Greggery Peccary’; an urban classic prom with Jules Buckley leading the BBC Symphony Orchestra bringing together the music of Fazer, Henze, Laura Mvula, Mosolov and Maverick Sabre; and a World  Routes prom featuring Fidan Hajiyeva, Gochaq Askarov, Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba, and Tinariwen. SG
The full programme is at http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms
Django Bates, above, plays the Proms on 28 August at 10.15

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Jazz bookings this year include Charles Lloyd and Vijay Iyer

Quincy Jones, who turned 80 in March, will during this year’s Montreux Jazz Festival combine a special birthday concert with a tribute to Claude Nobs at the first festival to be held since Nobs’ death following a skiing accident.

The concert will feature Patti Austin, James Ingram, Siedah Garrett, Nikki Yanofsky, Emily Bear, Alfredo Rodriguez, Andreas Varady, and Justin Kauflin taking part.

At Montreux this year jazz bookings also include Charles Lloyd, Gregory Porter, the Joe Sample trio, Avishai Cohen Quartet, Vijay Iyer trio, Youn Sun Nah, José James, Jonathan Batiste and Stay Human, with Bob James and David Sanborn reuniting, and George Benson.

Pianists Michael Wollny, Iiro Rantala, shortly to perform with the EST Symphony in Stockholm, and Leszek Możdżer will also appear in Montreux at the ACT label night.

The festival is always a mix of jazz and stellar names from rock, R&B, and pop, and will also feature Leonard Cohen, Lianne la Havas, Green Day, Prince, and Sting as headliners.

For the full line-up just announced go to www.montreuxjazz.com

Quincy Jones, above

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New producer Sushil Dade 

Sushil Dade is the new producer of BBC Radio 3 Sunday night show Jazz Line-Up. Long time producer Keith Loxam, who has been synonymous with the show since its beginning, and who was recently nominated for a Parliamentary Jazz Award for services to jazz, is retiring at the end of June.

Glasgow-born Dade grew up listening to Bollywood and Indian classical music, and has worked in the past as a content producer for BBC Radio Scotland and produced Radio Scotland’s Jazz House show. He also produced the first BBC Radio Scotland young jazz musician of the year competition for the station. Dade has also served on the board of the Scottish Academy of Asian Arts, and as a specialist music advisor at the Scottish Arts Council. Story: Stephen Graham
Sushil Dade above. Photo: BBC

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Danzón take on ‘Solar’: a clever departure

Alex Wilson
Trio

Alex Wilson Records ***1/2
A prisoner to his big technique and eclecticism at times, the trio format on Trio released earlier this week suits Alex Wilson well although the sequencing here doesn’t do him any favours. Big, booming number ‘Kalisz’ named for Paweł Brodowski’s piano festival in Poland is an early peak (it might have been better at the end) but ‘Remercier les travailleurs’ with its Malian lilt is less overly energetic and all the better for it, allowing bassist Davide Mantovani more scope. It’s great to hear drummer Frank Tontoh in a trio setting on an album again, although you can often hear him in clubs such as Hideaway regularly. Recorded live in London and at the Warwick Arts Centre in Coventry, as well as in studios in the capital, the danzón take on ‘Solar’ is a clever departure, and listen hard and you’ll find plenty to enjoy. Not sure about some of the tinkling applause at the beginning of some of the tracks as it makes everything resemble a vicar’s tea party. That’s not much of a drawback on an otherwise effortless sounding release by a pianist clearly hitting his stride.
Just released

Alex Wilson top left with Frank Tontoh and Davide Mantovani

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John Medeski
A Different Time
Okeh ***

Medeski originals, gospel, and Willie Nelson’s ‘I’m Falling in Love Again’ feature on new solo piano album by the jam band hero

The spine says it all. On the far left on black the yellow letters in a familiar handwritten script allow the eye to catch the word “OKeh”. It’s tiny. As the label is owned by a major record company there’s only so much romance in its return, but A Different Time is the first album to appear since welcome news came that the historical blues and jazz label is now back in the land of the living and signing again.

Stepping back in time is what the record is about. A solo piano release recorded on a French period Gaveau piano, an instrument known for its crafted cases, manufactured by a company originally founded in the mid-19th century. Medeski in the notes says this 7-footer dates back to 1924 and “the feel is very different” and that “one must sing with the fingers.”

It’s a very quiet often elegiac album and gets that bit more whisper-soft after opener ‘A Different Time’ on Willie Nelson’s ‘I’m Falling in Love Again’, which has a sort of musical box quality to it that’s new and sometimes on the record you have to do a double take. After all with Medeski Martin & Wood in the early-1990s Medeski got swept up in what became known as the jam band phenomenon, often with Hammond organ leading the swelling youth-friendly grassroots movement as at ease in indie rock clubs and outdoor festivals as it was in jazz spots.

A Different Time is the antithesis of groove and acid jazz. Most of the tunes are by Medeski except the Nelson just mentioned and an arrangement of Gabriel and Martin’s early 20th century gospel hymn ‘His Eye is on the Sparrow’. At its best, on say the lovely opening to ‘Graveyard Fields’ or the melodic exposition of ‘Luz Marina (From Mama Kia)’ the album shows another side to Medeski; at its worst it is that bit too ponderous.

On the cover there’s a piano on a flying carpet and a song such as ‘Luz Marina’ does just about have the ability to transport you to a land beyond the temporal sphere. For instance ‘Waiting at the Gate’ grows beautifully, like a Randy Newman song, with an air of optimistic expectation the album to that point had lacked and this song has a quiet grandeur to it, one that might outlast everything else on the album in my mind. So all in all very much the contemplative side of Medeski on display, in an album that has its moments but doesn’t always ignite. Stephen Graham

John Medeski above. Photo: Michael Bloom

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Kendrick Scott, Julian Siegel, and Sam Leak jam at Ronnie’s

Kurt Elling was having his picture taken with fans as the Ronnie Scott’s door staff last night let a bunch of people standing on the street in for the Late Late Show. He had just completed the second night of his sold out residency at the club this week, and there’s a buzz about the place.

The late show hosted by Alex Garnett, the diminutive flat cap-wearing saxophonist who can whip up a solo from the lower reaches of his horn with all the panache of a conjurer, was hosting the show, a featured band-led jam session for night owls after eleven, and this was a chance to let touring US alto saxophonist Patrick Cornelius and his quartet show their undoubted class. The altoist may have kept his very best to last, to around 2am, with a fine take on his hero Charlie Parker’s tune ‘Dexterity’, but Cornelius with old friend Michael Janisch on pulsing bass and tasteful guitarist Phil Robson (pushed along by drummer Andrew Bain) called the shots harmonically on demandingly sinuous advanced bebop.

Garnett, who has a winningly deadpan patter introducing the musicians, encouraged a “quiet roar” from the sizable late night turn-out for a line-up of great players who then joined to jam. Besides Garnett on tenor another fine tenor attraction was Julian Siegel standing lean and mean attacking like a latter-day Sonny Rollins, and with pianist Sam Leak joining in, Harold Arlen’s ‘My Shining Hour’ was the pick of this section of the session. Arlen oddly has made headline news this week for very different reasons as the writer of ‘Ding Dong’, now a Margaret Thatcher protest song currently at number two in the charts.

The promising Konitzian altoist Allison Neale impressed on a few numbers with ‘Stars Fell on Alabama’ the pick, and Kendrick Scott from the Elling band in residence really turned up the heat when he joined. And then towards the end former Amy Winehouse guitarist Robin Banerjee found those friction-heavy percussive sounds at low volume on the instrument only he seems to know how to locate: a nice surprise. 

Elling with his young daughter stayed to observe the jam for a while, and the Kurtster’s drummer Kendrick Scott told me later after he had eaten supper that he is in talks with promoters Serious to bring his band Oracle to the UK. Let’s hope this pans out as their latest album Conviction is one of the best jazz releases to appear this year, burning as it does with sheer energy and packed full of strong compositional ideas. Elling pianist and main man Laurence Hobgood chatted about his former Naim labelmate the late Chris Anderson, and reminisced about meeting Alan Broadbent which he said was “a thrill”. He also intimated that he’s putting together a new band for the autumn, featuring a trumpet in the line-up. When I asked who he’d envisage filling that role the pianist and arranger said unblinkingly: “Terence Blanchard.” Let’s hope that exciting prospect shapes up. SG

 

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Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter among the giants of jazz performing in 21st running of the London Jazz Festival

Tickets go on sale on Friday for some of the big names just announced for the 21st London Jazz Festival to be held this year. With the BBC having now ended its long-running commitment as a festival sponsor the LJF adds three replacement letters, EFG, a private bank, who have been involved with the festival since 2008, in the corporation’s place. The festival which runs from 15-24 November will also feature Jazz Voice on opening night at the Barbican; Hugh Masekela and Larry Willis; Stan Sulzmann’s Neon Orchestra; Arild Andersen; Schlippenbach Trio vs Noszferatu; the Wayne Shorter Quartet and BBC Concert Orchestra at the Barbican; a Charlie Parker on Dial jazz theatre event; Sonny Rollins this time at the Royal Albert Hall; Tigran Hamasyan + Elina Duni; Mehliana; John McLaughlin and Zakir Hussain: Remember Shakti; Gilad Atzmon at the QEH; and Madeleine Peyroux at the Festival Hall.

Sonny Rollins above

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Erin Boheme + Tammy Weis, Hippodrome, London tonight

When jazz and pop collides it can be messy. But if the tunes are good, the spirit’s right, the words to the songs possessing a staying power, delivered by a confident performer then what’s not to like: it’s not as if it’s life or death, is it?

Tonight at the Hippodrome in London’s west end Wisconsin-born Erin Boheme makes her London debut following the release of What a Life last month on Heads Up. She’s to be joined by Tammy Weis, a London-based Canadian singer who’s a well kept secret until, well, now on the London jazz vocals scene. Tammy’s also co-written one of the songs on the album as previously reported in these pages. Michael Bublé no less has produced this album… so where’s the jazz you might ask?! Well if you ask that kind of question, this album is not for you. It’s about songs, not improvising, but it’s perfectly compatible within its commercial framework rather than the flawed smooth jazz format that is now disappearing. Contrast the Eric Benet smooth jazz version of ‘The Last Time’ with the version here and there’s a huge difference in interpretation, and it’s less cheesy for sure. In Benet’s take on his own highly effective melancholic song, co-written among others with famed songwriter David Foster incidentally also chair of the Verve Music Group (who penned ‘I Have Nothingfor the late Whitney Houston), the natural feeling gets lost a bit crouched behind the layers of glossy audio production and arrangement.

Bublé’s approach although you mightn’t think so at first blush is to strip away the varnish, and let the songs breathe, and Carly Simon-loving Boheme begins demurely on a low key Caro Emerald-esque rumba ‘Everything But Me’, Tammy’s song, which is close enough for jazz put it on Born To Sing: No Plan B. Why Boheme needed to cover a Coldplay song I don’t know, and I didn’t care one bit for the Bublé-sounding Spencer Day who is on the otherwise excellent ‘I’d Love To Be Your Last’. But ‘One More Try’ is quite superb, and jazz-intuitive, and of the band we really should be hearing more of pianist Alan Chang who co-wrote the song with Boheme. Overall then, songs that will stay with you, delivered by a singer who clearly believes in her material and carries both the record and the day.

Erin Boheme above 
www.hippodromecasino.com