Talking to Eric Revis three years ago after his performance with guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel on an outdoor stage overlooking the Grand Harbour of Valletta the Branford Marsalis Quartet bassist shrugged as he was asked how the band’s new recruit Justin Faulkner, still a teenager at the time, was settling in. Revis looked at me hard and said simply, as if it was the most blindingly obvious thing in the world: “He’s doing fine.”

At the time I was surprised there wasn’t more reaction to the departure of Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts, who had been with Branford for such a long time and whose place at the forefront of jazz drumming globally was pretty much unassailable for someone of his vintage. Tain was up there, and had been for some time, as Generation X’s version of Elvin Jones, or Tony Williams. There was nobody quite like him in post-bop circles and his own albums for Columbia particularly Citizen Tain and Bar Talk even raised him to the level of a Jack DeJohnette, a drummer who could not just play at a superlative level but one who could write interestingly into the bargain. Tain has been busy on a myriad of projects since, although it is true for the time being he is less high profile than he was, although granted Branford isn’t quite centre stage in the way he used to be.

The quartet without Tain but with Faulkner has recorded for the first time on the rebelliously titled Four MFs Playin’ Tunes just released on Branford’s own Marsalis Music label. It follows on from the slightly disappointing duo album Songs of Mirth and Melancholy, which Marsalis cut with the quartet’s pianist Joey Calderazzo and released just last year. Four MFs is a much more vital record, displaying a sinuous sense of abandon as the watchword from the off on opener ‘The Mighty Sword.’ Faulkner is athletic for certain, but I’m not sure it necessarily “marks an exciting new era”, as Branford’s website puts it. Faulkner isn’t that different, and to claim that his appearance on the scene equates with Miles’ hiring of the then 17-year-old Tony Williams, is to heap too many expectations on Faulkner’s still young shoulders. In many ways although this is to Faulkner’s credit he sounds like a much much older player, one with a sensible head on him and the maturity of an elder. But sheer maturity does not necessarily mean a major new voice has arrived and this record is about the band. By the third track ‘Maestra’ Faulkner shows he has the seriousness both Marsalis and Calderazzo demand, and the way the drummer moulds himself around Calderazzo’s yearning solo and Revis’ insistent pedal point shows he knows how to listen and assert himself while still working with the pianist as an accompanist essentially.

On ‘Teo’ it’s almost as if Marsalis is back to his Trio Jeepy days, I mean because of the jaunty irreverent opening theme, and it’s good to hear he’s got his sense of humour back as it seemed to have deserted him entirely on Songs of Mirth and Melancholy, which was more about melancholy… and still more dolefulness, even on the lighter bits. There’s an endearingly scampering quality to ‘Whiplash’, and that jam session sense of adventure it’s hard to fake, but which comes instinctively to both Marsalis and Calderazzo. ‘As Summer Into Autumn Slips’ makes me think of Branford’s wonderful album Requiem and I wonder what Branford thinks of Sleeper, the long-in-hibernation Keith Jarrett Belonging Band’s just released album given that on Requiem Marsalis paid tribute to Jarrett on the track ‘Lykief’. ‘My Ideal’ definitely is in the lineage of Jarrett’s quartet work from the 1970s, particularly the European quartet. Four MFs is a great return to form by Marsalis, his best album since Braggtown, although it does lack the fire power with Tain on A Love Supreme Live. It’s also worth mentioning the bookending of the album with nods to the atmosphere of New Orleans on ‘The Mighty Sword’ with its sweltering sense of momentum and then the bonus track at the end, ‘Treat It Gentle’, drawing Sidney Bechet firmly to mind. Stephen Graham

The Branford Marsalis Quartet pictured above

September’s Kings Place Festival is an epic three-day chance to cram in as much or as little cultural nourishment as required after a sports-heavy summer.

Jazz is one of the pillars of the programming at Kings Place, in central London near St Pancras station, all the year round, particularly the Saturday night strand in Hall 2, and while at times the atmosphere there despite the beautiful surroundings and quality of the bookings can be a little lacking in excitement, the festival judging by previous years does ramp up the buzz factor a considerable notch. This year overall there are some 100 performances taking place across the arts, including classical music, comedy, and spoken word.

The jazz programming is extensive and includes cellist Matthew Barley and Friends (that’s the shakuhachi of Adrian Freedman and the piano of Julian Joseph), the sax/piano duo of Jason Yarde and Andrew McCormack, and Yarde’s Trio WAH! Also on are the vibes/piano duo of Jim Hart and Barry Green; Alexander Hawkins; Tomorrow’s Warriors performing The Queen’s Suite by Duke Ellington; and saxophonist Denys Baptiste’s new trio Triumvirate featuring up-and-coming drummer Moses Boyd along with bassist Larry Bartley.

(Denys Baptiste, pictured, top)

The festival also hosts the Edition Festival, showcasing artists from the roster of the leading Cardiff-based indie jazz label. The Ivo Neame Ensemble, Troyka, the sax/tuba duo of Marius Neset and Daniel Herskedal, and tenorist Josh Arcoleo are among those taking part.

(Ivo Neame, pictured above)

Trumpeter and composer Jay Phelps (above), who features on the soundtrack and plays the role of a member of the Louis Lester band in Stephen Poliakoff’s upcoming television drama Dancing on the Edge, also appears at Kings Place in two line-ups. One of these features the talented Canadian’s quartet joined by the Koco Quartet led by violinist Miles Brett, who like Jay also acts and plays in the Poliakoff serial, which is set in the London of the 1930s and stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jacqueline Bisset and John Goodman.

Free foyer events include octets and dectets by the National Youth Jazz Collective, the duo of bassist Ben Hazleton and singer Julia Biel, the duo of Emilia Martensson and Barry Green, plus singer Randolph Matthews with saxophonist Rob Hughes. The festival runs from 14-16 September. 

Stephen Graham

More at www.kingsplace.co.uk/festival

Pedro Segundo on the drums, with Chris Crenshaw, trombone, and Marcus Printup, trumpet, at the Late Late Show in Ronnie Scott’s
Photo: Benjamin Amure

Updated with new pictures

The Late Late Show at Ronnie Scott’s, the jam session that draws in some of the cream of the capital’s jazz talent for informal performances after the main draw of the evening has finished, dedicated the Wednesday evening session to Abram Wilson whose death from colon cancer at just 38 on 9 June was such a cruel blow. With members of the widely admired and respected trumpeter, composer, and bandleader’s family in the club following a New Orleans-type procession from the South Bank Centre to a memorial service in Waterloo earlier in the day when musicians taking part included Wynton Marsalis, pianist James Pearson leading the jamming told the audience that Abram had been due to return to the club in a few weeks if death hadn’t taken him away.

In just 10 years living in the UK the Arkansas-born trumpeter made a big and lasting impact on the national scene, and with Tim Thornton, bass, and Pedro Segundo on drums, Pearson, the club’s artistic director and leader of the Ronnie’s All-Stars, called on Andy Davies who runs the popular upstairs hard bop jam on Wednesdays to play a few songs in tribute. Welshman Davies, with his love of Kenny Dorham and Chet Baker, a communicative ability on the trumpet and the expressive tone of a musician who knows what he wants to say and does so with aplomb, was able to squeeze out every little nuance in a lovely sparkling rendition of ‘The Nearness of You’ in particular as well as opener ‘If I Were A Bell’. Singer Emma Smith, newly blond, also joined, running through ‘Skylark’ and scatting with some ease before guests from the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra, trombonist Chris Crenshaw tall and lean and playing fine and mellow with ridiculous skill, and trumpeter Marcus Printup in immaculately subtle form at low volume came down to Ronnie’s to jam fresh from performing with JALCO and The London Symphony Orchestra as they premiered Wynton’s Swing Symphony at the Barbican under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle.

Above: Marcus Printup of JALCO at the Late Late Show
Photo: Benjamin Amure

As young up-and-coming players lined up to jam including a name to watch in the smartly tailored pianist Reuben James who Abram had himself mentored, a new generation of National Youth Jazz Orchestra players and Tomorrow’s Warriors alumni circulated in the club into the wee small hours to play their socks off. It was a night that you’d guess Abram would have enjoyed. His spirit lives on for sure at the heart of it all, on Frith Street. Stephen Graham

Wynton MarsalisSwing Symphony (Symphony No. 3) received its UK premiere last night with the London Symphony Orchestra joining forces with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

Conducting without the score for the opening performance of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances it was a bit like being under the knife of the most remarkable surgeon in the world: the orchestra and the audience mere putty in his hands, the outcome never in doubt.

Wynton came on to the stage at the beginning of the second half almost in disguise, as the momentarily distracted audience settling into their seats took a while to spot the great New Orleansian as he walked to his seat right in the middle of the trumpet section of JALCO in front of the conductor’s podium, with the LSO spread out all around the jazz orchestra.

‘All Rise’ and ‘Blues Symphony’, the work’s predecessors paradoxically given that they were called that most classical of forms, ‘symphonies’, were actually experimental music in the sense that Wynton was trying out his solutions to orchestrating for symphony orchestra and jazz band. Neither succeeded particularly beyond their ambition and initial impact at the time, and I’m sure most fans of Wynton’s as well as critics see them more of a curiosity than say the oratorio Blood on the Fields, a much more significant achievement despite its massive length. Swing Symphony is different, a notch up in terms of the art of the composer, although the jury’s out as to whether it will be any more significant than say the likeable score Marsalis composed for Dan Pritzker’s silent film, Louis.

The symphony’s obvious sophistication and the multiple inspirations it summons, from ragtime and plantation dance forms, through Fletcher Henderson to Ellington, shares at least these links in common with the earlier works among the active ingredients at play. The heart of the matter, though, in his work is the parallel lines of the harmony, the scrabbling indeterminacy of the juxtaposing of chromaticism with classic song-like saxophone solos, at others echoing Leonard Bernstein in terms of romanticism, or Aaron Copland occasionally but as ever owing its creative core to Ellington. But without wishing to be trite, where were the tunes? Answer, for the most part absent, although one or two seemed to peep through which Ellington was always adept at drawing out. While Rachmaninov used the brass instruments in his Symphonic Dances only sparingly Marsalis liberally calls them into the action. Yet the carefully sculpted solo space for jazz tenor saxophone and clarinet and good use of the strings involved both orchestras to best effect, with the LSO zealous in their determination to enter into an accord with the spirit of the endeavour firmly intact.

Stephen Graham

Wynton MarsalisSwing Symphony (Symphony No. 3) is performed again tonight by the London Symphony Orchestra and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JALCO, above), conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. www.barbican.org.uk

The Late Late Show at Ronnie Scott’s, the jam session that draws in some of the cream of the capital’s jazz talent for informal performances after the main draw of the evening has finished, last night dedicated the evening to Abram Wilson whose death from colon cancer at just 38 on 9 June was such a cruel blow. With members of the widely admired and respected trumpeter, composer, and bandleader’s family in the club following a New Orleans-type procession from the South Bank Centre to a memorial service in Waterloo earlier in the day when musicians taking part included Wynton Marsalis, pianist James Pearson leading the jamming told the audience that Abram was due to return to the club in a few weeks if death hadn’t taken him away.

In just 10 years living in the UK the Arkansas-born trumpeter made a big and lasting impact on the national scene, and with Tim Thornton, bass, and Pedro Segundo on drums, Pearson, the club’s artistic director and leader of the Ronnie’s All-Stars, called on Andy Davies who runs the popular upstairs hard bop jam on Wednesdays to play a few songs in tribute. Welshman Davies, with his love of Kenny Dorham and Chet Baker, a communicative ability on the trumpet and the expressive tone of a musician who knows what he wants to say and does so with aplomb, was able to squeeze out every little nuance in a lovely sparkling rendition of ‘The Nearness of You’ in particular as well as opener ‘If I Were A Bell’. Singer Emma Smith, newly blond, also joined, running through ‘Skylark’ and scatting with some ease before guests from the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra, trombonist Chris Crenshaw tall and lean and playing fine and mellow with ridiculous skill, and trumpeter Marcus Printup in immaculately subtle form at low volume came down to Ronnie’s to jam fresh from performing with JALCO and The London Symphony Orchestra as they premiered Wynton’s Swing Symphony at the Barbican under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle.

As young up-and-coming players lined up to jam including a name to watch in the smartly tailored pianist Reuben James who Abram had himself mentored, a new generation of NYJO players and Tomorrow’s Warriors alumni circulated in the club into the wee small hours to play their socks off. It was a night that you’d guess Abram would have enjoyed. His spirit lives on for sure at the heart of it all, on Frith Street. Stephen Graham

Abram Wilson (pictured, top) Photo: Benjamin Amure

It was the first Soho Session at Pizza Express Jazz Club last night, a special invitation-only affair when the club went to some pains to put on a fine array of talent. Music manager Ross Dines hovered by the stage while over at the sound desk “voice of the club" sound engineer Luc Saint-Martin was happily twiddling the knobs of a specially installed state-of-the-art audio system set up for the night. The club has been toying with upgrading the sound in the basement space for some time and this was a key opportunity to put the kit through its paces although it all goes back in the box today.

Beat boxer extraordinaire Shlomo opened proceedings with his uncanny technique and the capability, with the help of a Loop Station and bags of natural talent, to resemble a complete band not just a guy standing there making odd noises into a pair of microphones. I liked his Public Enemy-type rush at the beginning and he accurately built up some Michael Jackson-type routines later. But the novelty faded after a while, although it was big fun. Happily the crystal-clear sound system definitely captured every hi-hat lick, the pop of a Shlomo snare and more in amazing clarity.

Next up was singer/songwriter Mara Carlyle who was accompanied by Nick Ramm on piano. Drenched with what sounded like reverb or some textural wash her voice has nonetheless a delicate freshness about it and she performed an engaged set accompanying herself on ukulele and adding a remarkable turn on musical saw later. Frail and delicate her stage persona may well be but she has a strong folky voice, like a female Jeff Buckley, with lots of interesting contrasts (her take on Schumann ‘I Blame You Not’ [‘Ich Grolle Nicht’] came off best) although some of the stage patter was a bit on the twee side.

Jamie Cullum was the surprise guest making a return to the club after his Big Audition concert last year. Trialling new material, he’s preparing his latest album, “if you talk to my manager", he joked to fans earlier, “he’ll tell you it’s coming out next week!" Cullum sat at the Steinway as if it were his second home, and got the audience on side and some of the singers present harmonising along to the mambo-hinting opening song ‘When I Get Famous’, about a schoolboy’s unrequited love for a girl and the feelings he has about her rejecting him.

The lovely ballad-like second song, ‘Save Your Soul’, hit the mark almost in the vein of his still unreleased ‘Rayleigh Road’, and he finished it off by romping home with ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ on a day that Mara Carlyle had noted giggling was “the hottest day of the year". You’re always on a hiding to nothing with a weather song, but Cullum is comfortable on classic songbook material like this so everyone’s luck was in.

Gregory Porter then charmed the audience and I really envy people present who had not heard the Brooklyn-based Californian before. A great sensory overload even if you’ve heard him umpteen times. Here, he was on his way "through" Harlem he twinkled changing the preposition from ‘to’ in his evocative homage to Langston Hughes and Marvin Gaye and the unrecognisable face of an America and a New York only a thoughtfully wistful song and great singer such as Porter can adequately convey. With José James’ drummer-of-choice Richard Spaven, gutsy tenor sax from Ben Castle and soulful Grant Windsor on piano plus lively bass from Chris Hill, this was a party performance fun but serious, of the moment yet of the past. Such a great talent and a joy to listen to on any occasion. I could listen to ‘Be Good’ all day long. Mr Bojangles himself would be proud.

Stephen Graham

 

Gregory Porter on the microphone and Jamie Cullum pictured above last night at the Soho Session, with Chris Hill on double bass at the rear of the stage and Ben Castle standing with his tenor saxophone