Nat Birchall
World Without Form
Sound, Soul and Spirit ***
Nat Birchall has got to be the generation X and northern English version of Alan Skidmore. You can’t just say that about anyone, not when sincere and detailed study and contemplation of John Coltrane is at issue. Anyone who tries half- heartedly to make the scene, unlike Skid or Nat, just won’t cut it. World Without Form never says it’s a Coltrane tribute, as Alan Skidmore records sometimes do, but it’s pretty clear throughout these seven tracks. There are twists and additional elements though, and in a nutshell these are involved with the contribution of pianist Adam Fairhall who can blow up all Matthew Shipp-like at times, something very different to McCoy Tyner’s work with Coltrane; and then there’s the vibes, bells and shakers of Corey Mwamba, adding a piquancy and altered view into the majesty of the Coltrane sound. World Without Form follows last year’s Sacred Dimension. Like Guiding Spirit and the earlier Akhenaten it came out in the same stylistic vein (with added Pharoah-isms sometimes) and was released on Matthew Halsall’s Gondwana Records, a label that has a north-west England base and revivalist DJ instincts. Halsall has been quoted as saying that Birchall’s music is “spiritual, soulful and honest”, which is a perfect way of putting it. This new release on a new imprint of Birchall’s own has more emotion than Sacred Dimension, and with the different arrangements an openness and power that after a while allow you to move on from thinking just about Coltrane. I still think Birchall has not travelled far beyond his comfort zone and that there are great things still to come from him in the future. Yet, as with Skidmore, he is doing everyone a favour with this crucially important jazz, bringing the music to a new younger audience. As a conduit to the spirit of Coltrane Birchall can do no wrong.

Stephen Graham

Out now

The Nat Birchall Quintet play Matt And Phred’s in Manchester on 4 January. Birchall pictured above

A CV to match few others in contemporary jazz, a giant of the music, and of the bass, Weber is a remarkable man, someone I had the privilege to interview in the mid-1990s, and whose name I first saw before I had even heard any of his music at least consciously.

It was there vibrant and striking a few years earlier on a slightly torn poster on the staircase wall of a jazz club called Akwarium in the Polish capital, Warsaw.

Yet thinking about it outside jazz, even though little did I know, I had of course heard him on the radio, through his extensive work with Kate Bush, on albums such as Hounds of Love, released in 1985.

Now 72, besides his work with Jan Garbarek that began in 1982, which Résumé concentrates on beginning in 1990, Weber, who was born in the southern German city of Stuttgart also worked extensively in the early part of his career with fellow Stuttgarter, pianist Wolfgang Dauner. Later in the United Jazz + Rock Ensemble, Weber would join Dauner to play for a time as well.

Just two years ago ECM began to present the Weber story to a new generation and of course his loyal public from the early days by releasing a three-CD Old & Masters Edition box that concentrated on Weber’s band Colours (which teamed Weber in its personnel with his later Garbarek band colleague Rainer Brüninghaus).

This band lasted for six years from 1975 and produced the beautiful Yellow Fields, as well as Silent Feet and Little Movements, complementary to his earlier masterwork The Colours of Chloё that initially made Weber’s name in 1974.

The new album draws on live recordings made between 1990 and 2007, solo spots at Garbarek concerts, edited for taste and sequencing and some fresh Garbarek input.

Weber uses ‘a reverb unit’, an echo delay, to accompany himself on his customised five-string electric double bass (and keyboards) for most of this exquisitely powerful album, Garbarek cropping up on three tracks, with drummer/percussionist Michael DiPasqua on two others.

The track titles have a simplicity and grandeur to them, performed in famous old European places mainly, giving each a location as title: hence ‘Grenoble’; ‘Amsterdam’; ‘Lazise’; and closer to home, with Garbarek adding selje flute, ‘Bath’.

Weber retired from the Garbarek quartet through ill health five years ago following a stroke, and the passing of time is also marked by some lovely liner note paintings by Weber’s wife Maja whose work adorns the covers of Weber classics down the years notably The Colours of Chloë and Yellow Fields.

It’s an immersive experience listening to Résumé. The bass is an orchestra in Weber’s magical hands.

Stephen Graham

Résumé is out now

The Discordian Trio
Hazlos Manzanos
First things first: The Discordian Trio are not, or were not, an industrial band from Melbourne in Australia formed in the mid-1990s from the ashes of Soulscraper. That’s Discordia. No, they’re a trio formed in Edinburgh four years ago, a guitar trio that last year got picked for BBC Introducing and whose two earlier records in a short space of time The Discordian Trio and the amusingly titled The Discordian Trio Presents The Discordian Trio indicate a band not afraid of hard work and commitment in recording music to disc. The mysterious title “Hazlos Manzanos" needs some sort of background, so bassist Craig Macfadyen helpfully explains: “We decided to name the album after the guy who recorded us, Carlos Manzanos Linares. It’s a sort of nickname he has for himself that doesn’t actually make sense in Spanish other than sounding a bit like his real name (I think it loosely translates as ‘make them apples’!).” 

Although the recording engineer was in Spain, Macfadyen continues, going through a “difficult time” with his family, “he came back to Edinburgh for a few days especially to record us and we were quite touched by that.”

Macfadyen, who with guitarist Jack Weir separately writes the tunes, and the non-writing drummer Richard Kass are Discordian, and they’re joined by bass clarinettist Pete Furniss on ‘Goggly Gogol’ and ‘The Dream Circean’ (the name of an Aleister Crowley story).

We find them at the outset of the album in a mellow but disguisedly free form mood on ‘Nothing Unknown’, and then the album takes a road less travelled into both improv and free rock on ‘Goggly Gogol’.

Weir sounds like John Abercrombie a bit when he opens ‘The Shuffler’s Puppet’, yet well thought-through variety abounds, for instance ‘Dwarkish Intentions’ at the end has an opening bass line that instantly recalls (although it’s the notes in a different order) Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Link’ from Rumours. We should all be hearing rumours about The Discordian Trio, favourable ones, though. They’ve made some memorable apples here on a startlingly accomplished and enjoyable album.

Stephen Graham

Hazlos Manzanos is just released. The Discordian Trio play Edinburgh’s Jazz Bar on 9 January

The Discordian Trio, pictured above



Andrew McCormack Trio
Live in London
Edition ****

Andrew McCormack was one of the rising stars of the Dune years, when the record label, currently on hiatus since the release of Denys Baptiste’s Identity By Subtraction, for more than a decade was the incubator of such talents as the pianist, saxophone stars Soweto Kinch and Baptiste, and many more. Telescope, his debut for the label still stands tall from that now distant period.

Much more recently playing in duo with alto saxophonist Jason Yarde, or as a member of bassist Kyle Eastwood’s band, McCormack’s latest record Live in London released as a download-only album on Monday features instead his trio of bassist Chris Hill and drummer Troy Miller, and as indicated in the title was recorded in the capital, at Chelsea’s 606.

Most of the tunes are McCormack’s, typically sincere, and serious, yet also possessing an underlying, beautiful, sense of melancholy that lifts rather than drags you to the depths of despair.

The other tunes are the standards ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’, and ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’, maybe not the most exciting choices, but delivered with personality. I have seen this trio live, at the Green Note in Camden, and the rapport the three demonstrated some five years or so ago was immediately clear then and on this live document. Hill is Jamie Cullum’s bassist these days and Miller a busy session man, a player blessed with perfect timing, taste, and intuitive interpretative rhythmical ability who also plays with such fine guitar talents as Femi Temowo. I caught Troy and Femi playing together at the Late Late show in Ronnie Scott’s just last month and I was very impressed indeed with Miller, and this album is further proof.

So it’s a trio of strong players, in their prime, and McCormack’s material is up to the task. In his tunes, such as opener ‘Antibes’, and the quietly dogged ‘Junket’ he knows how to shape the composition, building tension, releasing that dramatic menace in an organic flow, and making his music as interpreted in the trio format appear like a conversation that has the potential to go off somewhere unexpected.

The improvising frequently embarks on ambitious detours which Hill and Miller steer adroitly. I like the way the 606 audience applause has been captured, it’s not intrusive or there to stoke the ego of the performers by its inclusion, simply part of the narrative arc of the record that more clinical records tend to forget.

McCormack at times reminds me of Keith Jarrett when he plays a beautiful balladic phrase, and ‘Junket’ is where you’ll hear this influence strongly. But McCormack retains his own identity, and the musicianship, empathy and quality of writing makes this a pleasure from start to finish. The trio form suits McCormack, and it’s a different kind of trio here than many new ones appearing this year, with others often labouring under the understandable shadow of the music of EST. This isn’t the case at all here, a sign of McCormack’s focus and ideas. It’s a breakthrough modern sounding album without being remotely avant garde or overly ambitious, but one that once again reminds the scene of McCormack’s great ability and flair, but one that also points to his growing confidence as a composer,

Stephen Graham

Andrew McCormack, pictured above


Ahmad Jamal is to appear at the first Jazz FM awards to be held at the end of January.

While no official announcement has been made so far, sources at the station have confirmed that the great Pittsburgh-born pianist, who turned 82 in the summer, and who along with Frank Sinatra counts as a seminal influence on Miles Davis, has accepted an invitation to attend. 

Jamal through his Pershing recordings staked his place immediately as a giant of jazz leaving an indelible mark on the music. These recordings created at the Pershing Lounge in Chicago beginning in 1958, were where the pianist laid down his best known sides along with bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernel Fournier. They not only sold in very large numbers, but also provided a snapshot of a music that would be changed irrevocably in the years to come by such innovators as Cecil Taylor, the free jazz movement and its socio-political and cultural consequences, and later by the demands and challenges of jazz-rock.

Ahmad Jamal’s appearance at the awards underline the event’s credibility and mark the beginning of a big year for the DAB broadcaster, as the station is also to mount the Love Supreme outdoor festival in July.

Stephen Graham

Elina Duni Quartet
Matanë Malit
ECM ***
It’s always tempting to second guess a label or make sweeping generalisations about their output. Labels with a big release schedule and eclectic tastes, such as ECM’s, regularly by their ambition prove the absurdity of such dragooning of music into neat little phrases. Of course, that’s not to say that everything is individual, again a fairly ludicrous attitude, but certainly this release by the Elina Duni Quartet is unusual. Singer Duni born in the Albanian capital of Tirana in 1981, sings mournfully over a dozen songs on the album, the title of which means ‘Beyond the Mountain’, several of which mine the fairly unknown folk music of her native land. Her Swiss husband Colin Vallon’s trio (its personnel changed now since their Albanian-influenced album Rruga with the trio’s longstanding drummer Samuel Rohrer replaced here by Norbert Pfammatter) is a typically modern European style very quiet piano trio that we’re accustomed to since Tord Gustavsen’s rise to prominence. So it’s library-like in the level of contemplation at play. Duni came to Switzerland in the early-1990s and it’s her collision with the world outside the formerly closed country of Albania through her music that makes this album startling. The quartet has released hard to find albums Baresha and Lume Lume for the tiny Meta Records label which I’ll seek out as clearly the music here on the new album is mature and deepy considered and the journey the musicians have made would be interesting to trace. Patrice Moret, the quartet’s bassist, holds the key to much of the integrating of vocals and trio on Matanë Malit, and it’s clear that Balkan folk songs have rarely sounded so ancient seen through the lens of a very modern artist in Duni.
Stephen Graham

Elina Duni Quartet, pictured above



Borders ****

2012 has been a big year for Breach. With touring in the summer that led them to the Rochester Jazz Festival in New York state and Toronto and Vancouver in Canada as well as a run of dates all over England and Scotland recently, their just released new album Borders finds them claim their due place in the sun at last, or as the album cover picture has it, an overcast beach. The album, released on their own Breach label sees guitarist Graeme Stephen also manipulating electronics, with organist Paul Harrison in electronic mode as well, plus drummer/percussionist Chris Wallace testing very interesting waters.

Whether it’s teasing with the melody of ‘In a Sentimental Mood’ on ‘I Smell Something’, or the organ trio format itself, at the heart of the matter, there’s a playfulness at work and plenty of explorative and engaged playing throughout that manages to vault over the stultifying limitations of the format. “Paul Harrison would like to apologise to Duke Ellington”, the drily amusing note puts it, so clearly Breach aren’t up themselves, the latter a factory fault setting in band ego-land quite often. This trio find a way on these eight tracks to dispel nearest easy comparisons (say Lifetime, or to a lesser extent Troyka), and fit in well with the current redefining of how prog fits within jazz. Harrison plays the organ like a synth, if you know what I mean, and that makes all the difference, so he comes over like Gary Husband might with John McLaughlin sometimes, Larry Young very occasionally. There’s less firepower needed as the idea clearly is not a  Heath Robinson-like fusion explosion, and I think that’s where the subtlety of the electronics comes in as well as Stephen’s superb approach to jazz guitar. He plays in the lineage of Phil Robson perhaps more than McLaughlin and there is considerable flexibility and passion in his playing. Take his Celtic rock-like solo on ‘Borders’, say. The tunes are good (‘Judgement’ is the pick of a strong set, especially the ‘bridge’ section there). A fine record from three players who have something that bit different and distinctive to say with their improvising. Seek them out.

Stephen Graham

Pictured, above Breach

So what’s in store for 2013? Well, everything goes quiet for a bit in terms of record releases now and over Christmas but already there are pre-release copies of some big releases available and some tracks from them online.

The record companies, at least the ones that are really sussed, allow considerable promo of their albums ages before release these days. It takes time for people to find music despite the universality of the web, time to think about buying tracks, and pre-buy listens are essential in the build, and it’s not just about the hard sell or even a subliminally insidious push.

In the digital age and in a recession it’s as if you have to really believe in the artist to then invest with hard cash and people can get engaged whether they’re media or especially not.

It’s democratising and there’s more open access to listen early than in the old white label days when white labels were scarce. Of course some artists don’t like this new method, and there are records that simply are kept under strict wraps until release, although protective marketing can mess things up. The trailing of tracks generally works and crucially allows time for fans to really get to grip with what their artists are doing new and then they can choose to go out to the clubs and concert halls to hear them. Take a look at say the Babel site for great upfront access to the latest releases and new bands:

Last year UK indie Naim Jazz began circulating copies of The Face of Mount Molehill four to five months before its release, something that really helped push sales way past the 6,000 mark, and Harlem indie Motéma garnered even more UK sales for Gregory Porter’s Be Good by providing easily available good quality videos and streams before release although word of mouth from the live shows was the best promotion ultimately, as t’will ever be.

Blue Note are doing the advance trail in different ways for two big releases for 2013: Wayne Shorter’s Without a Net, more of which in a later blog, and José James’ No Beginning No End, which is released on 21-22 January. The work on this began with the help of iTunes and ‘Trouble’ was named track of the week, but also an appearance by James at the associated iTunes fest was a significant factor, supporting Robert Glasper who since then has appeared in promo video form interviewing the New York-based singer for extra matching.

James’ career has fluctuated a great deal since he first emerged on Gilles Peterson’s radar with the hipster DJ signing the at-that-point complete unknown to his label, Brownswood. James’ Coltrane-rooted gigs with Jef Neve were very fine live (see links below) yet their duo album for Impulse disappointed a bit, and I’m not that keen on the hip hop-tinged Black Magic even with Flying Lotus’ imput.

Signing to Blue Note has done wonders for James’ creativity. The new album has an authentic retro jazzed soul sound, not Gregory Porter’s way, say, although both singers profess much love for the music of Nat King Cole. They have very different voices, and James is more alert to the club scene, ‘club’ as in the old acid jazz rare groove sense, and with James it’s one ear to Bill Withers, one ear to Flying Lotus and all ears to John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman but Gil Scott-Heron comes in to the picture as well.

The new album of originals opens in bedroom fashion with JJ’s lyrics on ‘It’s All Over Your Body’ with a band featuring bassist Pino Palladino, some retro horns, Robert Glasper and Chris Daddy Dave. World-jazz singer Hindi Zahra guests memorably on the next track ‘Sword and Gun’, yet it’s ‘Trouble’ blessed with a monster groove that really impresses. Ex-Guy Barker and current Van Morrison band member Alistair White on trombone makes his presence felt on this JJ-penned song, written with Scott Jacoby.

‘Vanguard’ following is also excellent, Glasper helming it on Rhodes with Daddy Dave and Pino Palladino, the latter who played very well live with Glasper at the Roundhouse in October and is an album co-producer. Emily King adds lovely feminine touches on the seductive ‘Come to my Door’, the fifth track, and she’s even better on the second of her two album tracks ‘Heaven on the Ground’, which is track six.

‘Do You Feel’ and ‘Make it Right’ passed me by a bit, but ‘Bird of Space’ didn’t, possibly the connoisseurs’ choice and if rumours are right James’ favourite cut from the whole superlative affair, while final tracks ‘No Beginning No End’ and ‘Tomorrow’, the latter with Monk prizewinning pianist Kris Bowers an interesting presence. A record this good hardly ever comes along. Thank goodness it has. Set your clocks for release time in late-January.
Stephen Graham

Some José James links

They’re new in that they have debuted with an album or haven’t even done that. They’ve often picked up good reviews, impressed live, or have that extra distinctive touch that makes them stand out from the crowd. There’s no science involved in picking them, it’s just a gut feeling. They may change their line-ups, break up acrimoniously in the years to come, last as long as the Rolling Stones, or simply vanish without a trace by breakfast. They’re the lifeblood of the scene, though, and they’re bands, not groups, and nope not ensembles either.

Sons of Kemet

Unbeatable energy from Shabaka and the two-tubs tuba turbanauts


Dice Factory

Are you going to go my way? Maths jazz par excellence from mystery man George Fogel and co


Laura Jurd Quartet
Trumpeter’s sensational debut


World Service Project
They matched, it fused

Tingvall Trio

The new melodic straight out of Hamburg


Black Top

Flexible resourceful improvising: Steve Williamson in his element with Pat Thomas and Orphy Robinson with Cleveland Watkiss on some gigs



Finnish futurists


Opalińska & Whates

Distant echoes of Komeda and Roman Dylag 

Dice Factory, top and Tingvall Trio above

It has been the worst year in living memory for reading good books about jazz, despite (because of?) the rise and rise of the eBook. Good writers generally can’t get published for money, it’s as simple as that.

Thankfully, there are a few just published or on the horizon to make up for this a bit, and some that have caught my eye include The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire by Ted Gioia, Soul Unsung by Kevin Le Gendre, and You’ll Know When You Get There by Bob Gluck, about Herbie’s Mwandishi period.

One I did enjoy was Keystone Korner: a Portrait of a Jazz Club. It made me think…

Next time you’re standing in a jazz club or sitting around perusing the club programme, looking at the menu or sipping a beverage ahead of the band coming on, spare a thought for the photographer. Ever thought what it would be like photographing the band you’ve come to see?

‘In My Years at Keystone’, a chapter in Keystone Korner: a Portrait of a Jazz Club photographer Kathy Sloane offers a glimpse of her time photographing Todd Barkan’s famed San Francisco club Keystone Korner in the 1970s. “I opened the door to Keystone Korner and walked into what felt like Manhattan. The jazz club was small and dark,” she writes, “and the sounds coming from the bandstand – the honks, the cries. The sirens of the streets, the confinement and freedom of New York, rushed at me with such force that I stood in the doorway as though rooted to the floor.” Sloane, a New Yorker, tells of the challenges of limited light in the club, the distraction of the psychedelic mural merging with the musicians, but what about that mirror to the right of the stage? She recalls: “I loved shooting musicians in the mirror.”

Sloane’s recollections are just one voice, and her photographs another point of entry, besides the dozens of recollections of the club by Barkan himself, waitresses, customers, musicians including Dave Liebman, Eddie Henderson, Eddie Marshall, Steve Turre, and poets, with California poet laureate Al Young writing the preface.

Barkan, now in New York programming Dizzy’s in Jazz at Lincoln Center, says of the club: “Keystone Korner was definitely a bright moment in song. It was very much a co-operative effort, a very rare oasis where everybody seemed to be focused, with the same feelings about the music, and that’s part of what made it a special experience.”

The club eventually ran out of money and closed in the early-1980s but its place in jazz history is secure with many important albums including McCoy Tyner’s Atlantis recorded on the North Beach premises at 750 Vallejo next to a police station. Some of the best reminiscences of all are from the waitresses and the club’s cook Ora Harris provides some great anecdotes. An essential read for anyone who’s ever stepped foot in a jazz club.

Keystone Korner: a Portrait of a Jazz Club, Indiana University Press, £25