She’s been on the cover of both Downbeat and Jazz Times, and with the release of her latest album Claroscuro as recently as the autumn, the multi-award winning clarinet, bass clarinet and saxophone player Anat Cohen, with a finely honed individualism in her extraordinarily burnished playing, here achieves maximum impact with her down home version of Abdullah Ibrahim’s ‘The Wedding’. That version alone along with her reputation Stateside should whet the appetites of UK jazz fans sufficiently to draw the serious jazz heads down to the Soho basement club she’s to play when the Israeli-born musician debuts in the UK for a first appearance in London as part of a brief European tour. With a band on the album that includes the hip Jason Lindner on piano, skilled bassist Joe Martin, and drummer Daniel Freedman, all of whom are making the trip, there’s much to savour from the deep traditions of jazz clarinet onwards towards the modern global sound on an album that playfully uses the Spanish spelling of the Italian word ‘chiaroscuro’ in its title. Don’t forget to catch Cohen’s wonderful take on Artie Shaw’s ‘Nightmare’, with Paquito d’Rivera guesting, if you pick up Claroscuro. Stephen Graham
Anat Cohen above plays the Pizza Express Jazz Club in London tonight
Last minute tickets: www.pizzaexpresslive.co.uk
Thought-Fox: part of the new wave of the Irish jazz scene
Named after a Ted Hughes poem Thought-Fox are a world away from a Hughesian landscape, with the poet’s somewhat severe and even brutalistic grasp of the natural world a long way distant. With singer Lauren Kinsella’s voice the main distinguishing feature, My Guess (Diatribe) opens with the knotty ‘Nightlight’, which might have benefited, though, from being placed much later in the album. Kinsella’s advanced approach compares immediately to a singer such as Gretchen Parlato, so it’s not a big blustery wave of noise but one that favours asides and confidences, syllabic invention, and daring intervallic leaps, with a control at low volumes that can translate to a bigger effect. The singer is a confidante, as it were, to the instrumentalists who respond from her hints and cues.
‘Ideas burning brightly’
Thought-Fox are that bit different, with a bespoke rhythm imperative, and Simon Roth on drums sculpts this alternative direction with a growing sense of unforced momentum as the album develops. By ‘Worm of Thought’ (inspired by The Waste Land) when the album gains a free improv impetus both he and Kinsella have clearly found common ground, a sort of “peace of mind” as the lyric to the title track later has it, as the singer’s ambition increases and the direction of the music becomes less mannered.
Remaining tracks ‘Malin’s Chai’ (the best melody by far and most involved band interplay), ‘Celia’, and title track ‘My Guess’ build on the promise shown first in ‘Worm of Thought’. There’s probably an even better album inside this one crying to get out but it’s clear that a fine new singer with ideas burning brightly inside and the right improvising attitude has arrived. For that in a scene often bereft of original approaches we should be very grateful. Stephen Graham
My Guess is released on Monday 6 May. Thought-Fox play the Vortex in London on 8 May
Newly named a UNESCO artist for peace the distinguished bassist and producer Marcus Miller is to perform a concert on Friday (22 March) at the United Nations General Assembly Hall in New York, in a programme that will follow the slave trade route, starting with artists from Africa, the Caribbean and North America, with other artists taking part including the National Ballet of Cameroon, west African band Benyoro, singer Somi, and Handsworth Revolution reggae legends Steel Pulse.
Miller’s involvement with UNESCO goes back to masterclasses he taught at the first International Jazz Day hosted by UNESCO in association with the Thelonious Monk Institute, and next month Miller will be involved in jazz day once more. In July the bassist famed for his work with Miles Davis among others will be officially designated a UNESCO Artist for Peace in Paris and in his new role Miller will support UNESCO’s Slave Route Project and promote peace, dialogue, and unity through jazz. The international day of remembrance for the victims of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade is held on 25 March, with this year’s theme celebrating emancipation.
Marcus Miller above
Jay’s Jitter Jive dance night began at the Hippodrome on Charing Cross Road, just yards from Leicester Square earlier this month with trumpeter Jay Phelps leading his eight-piece band featuring Lauren Dalrymple on vocals, and Perry Louis, of Jazzcotech renown, leading the dance moves. Jay, acting a role as one of two trumpeters in the Louis Lester Band, and also on the hit soundtrack of Adrian Johnston’s music for the Dancing on the Edge band, and whose own debut as a leader Jay Walkin’ was released to good reviews in 2010, did a trial run for Jitter Jive just before the end of 2012 at Kings Place. On his website he says speaking of the night at the prestigious York Way venue: “We had a great time playing the music of the era, and we even included three tunes from the Snakehips Johnson band transcribed by Soweto Kinch.” On recent BBC2 documentary Swinging into the Blitz the death was grippingly recalled of Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson, who was among the many to die in the Blitzed-out West End night club Café de Paris, just a few hundred yards from the Hippodrome, on 8 March 1941. Jay performed in the documentary band sequences recreating the Snakehips sound as did Soweto Kinch who has a new record out, The Legend of Mike Smith, released earlier this year, and Jay appears on it in one of the best spots of the whole affair on the ballad ‘Vacuum’, his horn set alongside the elegiac piano of Julian Joseph. SG
Jitter jive takes place on Wed 27 March. More at http://www.hippodromecasino.com
Watch some Cab Calloway jitterbug jive http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N06KxYyUZkk
A jazz sensibility connects with a great deal of world music. Many African artists manage to navigate their music away from too many compromises in reaching out to new audiences but inevitably (if you recall Baaba Maal’s Television) the tunes are memorable but made for a limited ‘pop’ shelf life albeit loaded with much more mass appeal potential than most jazz people could ever dream of. Malian singer Traoré’s latest begins in a very poppy way with the appealing ‘Lalla’ but the album stroked home impressively by Seb Rochford, with PJ Harvey producer John Parish on board recording not in Bamako but Bristol, moves beyond simple radio appeal swiftly enough from ‘Kouma’ on. All the songs were written and composed by Traoré, an important cultural role model for a new generation of musicians in Mali including the acclaimed singer/guitarist Fatoumata Diawara who used to be her backing singer. There’s plenty to savour, although ‘Lalla’ is easily the most accessible song even if the song structures are hardly a stretch throughout. Traoré has a gritty forceful side to her voice and there’s a vitality and a certain edge in her delivery that jazz fans best appreciate and, as her fame widens, genre niceties won’t hold back. Released on 8 April
Christine Tobin, Guy Barker, and John Etheridge have been nominated for jazz musician of the year at this year’s Parliamentary Jazz Awards sponsored by royalties body PPL and Jazz Services the winners of which will be announced at a ceremony in the Terrace Pavilion of the House of Commons on 8 May.
In the album of the year category, Irish singer Tobin receives another nomination for her acclaimed album Sailing to Byzantium, while Jazz FM award winner Saltash Bells by John Surman and Walking Dark by Phronesis are also nominated.
The jazz ensemble of the year nominations are Beats & Pieces Big Band, Impossible Gentlemen, and Troyka; while the Live Jazz award of the year nominations are Café Oto, Herts Jazz, Manchester Jazz Festival, and the Vortex.
Jazz journalist of the year nominees are: previous winner John Fordham of The Guardian; the Financial Times’ Mike Hobart; and The Herald’s Rob Adams who was nominated last year. Jazz broadcaster of the year nominees are Gilles Peterson, previous winner Helen Mayhew, and Mike Chadwick, often nominated at the awards now in their ninth running, while jazz publication of the year nominations go to Catherine Tackley for Benny Goodman’s Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert; previous winner Jazzwise; and the website London Jazz News.
The jazz education nominees are Brian Moore, Jonathan Eno, Nick Smart, and Tommy Smith; while Services to Jazz nominees are Evan Parker, BBC producer Keith Loxam, Norma Winstone, and Stan Tracey.
The winners are chosen by peers and MPs, the judging members of the All Party Parliamentary Jazz Appreciation Group in Parliament. James Pearson and the Ronnie Scott’s All Stars will perform at the awards in May, making a return appearance.
Double nomination: Christine Tobin, top
Rotterdam bound: McCoy Tyner
Rotterdam’s North Sea Jazz Festival has announced details of artists to appear at this year’s staging of the long running festival, held over three days as usual in July.
On the opening day, Friday 12 July, Santana, Diana Krall, Medeski, Martin & Wood, Roy Hargrove Quintet, retro diva Caro Emerald, the Monty Alexander Trio, soul singer James Hunter, Mala in Cuba, and Lianne La Havas are all scheduled to appear. Next day Saturday 13 July has John Legend, Kenny Barron and his trio, Chick Corea’s new band the Vigil recently debuting at Ronnie Scott’s, quartertone trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf, the great jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater and Jazz FM gold award-winning pianist Ramsey Lewis.
The middle day of the festival also sees Dutch favourites New Cool Collective, John Zorn at 60 Marathon, Michel Camilo (newly signed to Okeh records), and flamenco star Tomatito.
While there are no significant surprises, the festival this year has picked up on a high profile mix of legends and newer names in remarkable quantity as ever. It’s possible to survey great swathes of the global jazz scene over just three days spent in Rotterdam checking out the gigs held inside the massive Ahoy venue.
Also for the Saturday shows are Gary Clark Jr, Sangam featuring Charles Lloyd, the great McCoy Tyner and his Latin Jazz All Stars, Laura Mvula, Shuggie Otis, Cody ChesnuTT, Re:Freshed Orchestra, and Bassekou Kouyate/Ngoni ba.
The final day at North Sea this year features Sting, Kendrick Lamar, Marcus Miller, Joe Jackson and the Bigger Band featuring Regina Carter, Dionne Warwick, Charles Bradley, Bettye LaVette, Branford Marsalis Quartet, Avishai Cohen Quartet, José James, Ebo Taylor, Mud Morganfield, and Calexico. MB
The trad era, with the passing of luminaries Kenny Ball, Terry Lightfoot at the weekend, and the writer Jim Godbolt earlier this year probably turned away as many people from jazz as it attracted to it, a paradox unseen in its day as trad reached the largest audiences jazz has ever reached in this country.
With their subsequent outlandishly outmoded stage wear, and the music seemingly reluctant to move beyond banjo-and-braces clichés it’s no wonder that trad became seen as part of a cultural backwater eventually, a garden gnome of a genre.
With the birth of rock ’n’ roll it became a joke, and the music identified with your parents’ generation. Former rock journalist John Harris, writing in The Guardian has put it like this: “I came of age in a culture in which the jazz both categorised and demonised as ‘trad’ would not do at all. I have childhood memories that fit the picture – of impatiently flicking through the three TV channels, and alighting on ensembles of men in candy-striped waistcoats, blowing out a racket that seemed dated, even flatly silly.”
Poet Philip Larkin used trad partly as a criticism of modernism in his jazz critiques, while Melly tells how, rather than taking sides, he found that in the Scala theatre in London’s Charlotte Street he discovered the power of ‘revivalist jazz’, the term used before ‘trad’ supplanted it. “I came out of that concert a changed person,” Melly wrote in Owning Up first published in 1965, when trad was a distant memory. Now the music is still widely played in under-the-radar places, often very stubbornly, to an often baffled, uninterested, and dwindling audience.
Melly discovered the revivalist scene via the Melody Maker and began to sing with Beryl Bryden at the Leicester Square Jazz Club and later Eel Pie Island eventually joining Mick Mulligan’s band, a big hero of Melly’s whose picaresque adventures the singer was so adept at telling so very entertainingly.
Trad for Melly was a state of mind, and it was about fun, not a word that the young maths-jazzers today like to use overly much. The venues then were pretty unrecognisable from today’s jazz places, according to Melly’s description. “Many of those pub rooms were temples of the ‘Ancient Order of Buffaloes’, that mysterious proletarian version of the ‘Freemasons’, and it was under dusty horns and framed nineteenth century characters that we struggled through ‘Sunset Café Stomp’ or ‘Miss Henry’s Ball’."
Melly is astute enough to mention that some traditionalists became modernists or mainstreamers, and some trad musicians “began to realize that Gillespie and Parker, Monk and Davis were not perverse iconoclasts but in the great tradition.”
Yet there developed a schism between the two big styles in jazz of the day, a lack of toleration, that carried a heavy toll. With Larkin ludicrously pitting Miles Davis (bad) on the one hand against Eddie Condon (good) on the other the madness of the rivalry, and the prejudices involved still scream off the page. “As it enters the ear,” Larkin wrote, “does it come in like broken glass or does it come in like honey?”
There are a few figures from the trad era still left and topping festival bills, most notably Acker Bilk who appears at Brecon in the summer, and the constantly touring Chris Barber. Although the years of trad as a popular movement disappeared long ago just as the craze for jungle or grime in recent years has, trad has endured long beyond its natural shelf-life, and will in all likelihood live on past the departure eventually of all of the trad gentlemen of jazz. Will a new generation, even if it wanted to, manage to capture that initial excitement that made trad significant in the first place? Maybe not. Remixing ‘Petite Fleur’ or performing a punk jazz revamp of ‘Stranger on the Shore’, might have to wait a while yet.
The cover of Owning Up, pictured top
at Brilliant Corners
Improv rising star pianist Alexander Hawkins crops up in two playing situations at the inaugural Brilliant Corners festival later this week.
The Oxford-based musician performs with his own band Decoy on organ, alongside John Edwards and Steve Noble, but Hawkins is also to feature at the Belfast festival in Human, drummer Steve Davis’ new band.
Davis, best known for Bourne/Davis/Kane, no not a firm of architects but a peerlessly anarchic piano trio, has teamed up to be Human, as it were, with the maverick violinist Dylan Bates, and trumpeter/electronicist Alex Bonney.
MAC attack: the new Belfast arts venue
is at the heart of Brilliant Corners
Liane Carroll, David Lyttle, and Mark Lockheart’s Ellington In Anticipation, are also part of the three-day festival previously trailed in these pages, taking place in the city’s Cathedral Quarter from Thursday.
Alexander Hawkins, top
Black Top’s Pat Thomas in the summer of June 2011 began a series of solo improvisations in the City University Music Studios and set to work on a solo piano album now released under the title Al-Khwarizmi Variations. The album builds its own unique soundscape via the arc of 10 elaborately realised variations anyone who’s heard Black Top, which sees Thomas often joined by Steve Williamson or Orphy Robinson, will be familiar with. It’s released on the Fataka label, home to John Coxon, Evan Parker and Eddie Prévost’s album Cinema, and John Butcher/Matthew Shipp’s At Oto. Muḥammad Al-Khwarizmi was an eighth century Baghdad-born mathematician whose works introduced Hindu-Arabic numerals and algebraic ideas into Western mathematics.
The cover of Al-Khwarizmi Variations, above. Pat Thomas plays Leftitude in London on Wednesday: www.leftitudefestival.com
Manu Dibango will celebrate his 80th birthday later this year with a major concert at London’s Barbican.The saxophonist, an icon of African jazz, has a career in music that stretches back to the 1950s when the Cameroonian first made a name for himself in France and Belgium where he lived for long spells. But Dibango had to wait until the 1970s for his breakthrough, the funky ‘Soul Makossa’, a song that smashed into the top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 in 1973. Identified loosely with prevaling 1970s African jazz flavours, such as Afrobeat, Dibango worked with the genre’s chief figure Fela Kuti during this time, and in the UK became a firm favourite at Ronnie Scott’s where he was a regular draw. The Barbican concert is on 26 November just over a fortnight before Dibango turns 80. MB
Manu Dibango, pictured
Bob: a Palindrome
Bebob Records NEW SEASON HIGHLIGHT ****
It’s not quite the heavy metal umlaut, more an upside down version of one as you can see on the sleeve above, but Bob: a Palindrome, is Robert Hurst’s latest on his own Bebob records, a stellar septet befitting the company the musician habitually keeps, as the bassist appeared just last year on Macca’s Grammy winning Kisses on the Bottom.
Branford Marsalis, who Hurst made his name with in the Columbia years, is also on this new septet album, the centrepiece of which is a ‘Middle Passage Suite’ the title referring to the Atlantic slave trade, with individual pieces reflecting survival, death, and the continuum. Robert Glasper plays piano and Rhodes, and it’s interesting to hear Glasper on someone else’s records as well as his own, especially following the success of Black Radio. In some way his playing here recalls the style of one of his earlier records, Canvas. Bennie Maupin, a fellow Detroiter of Hurst’s, makes his presence felt quite early on flute, and another Detroit jazz legend, trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, who taught Kenny Garrett among others, melds more than well with Marsalis, and Glasper knits in beautifully behind the front line playing Rhodes on ‘Picked From Nick’.
It’s good to hear Tain Watts playing again with Branford (the Marsalis quartet hasn’t been the same without Tain), and the great drummer also has a significant musical rapport with percussionist Adam Rudolph who chops up the rhythms just right.
Highlights? Well the opening of ‘Big Queen’ has a sinuous momentum that recalls the Messengers with that slightly ominous atmosphere that Watts and Rudolph do much to build and push along; and Branford burns on the third part of the ‘Middle Passage’ suite.
The suite, in keeping with the rest of the album composed and arranged by Hurst, is the most important part of the record, the 21 minutes of music containing a unifying chamber music dimension as well as a jazz one; and Rudolph and Watts in Part II unite the separate ‘sections’ of the septet and ably direct the converging musics. UK group Zed-U were one of the first to highlight the Middle Passage as a subject for jazz composition in recent years and Neil Charles’ work on that record stands up well to Hurst’s superlative work here.
Later in Bob: a Palindrome ‘Indiscreet in da Street’ has formidable energy, and that’s a hallmark of this excellent album available for now as an import only.
Finally, with or without the upside down umlaut, this record might win an award for the most number of ‘thank you’ acknowledgements. More than 100 individual entries are printed so Hurst is clearly a grateful person! But we as listeners should be even more thankful for this quite superb album that achieves so much and shows such indomitable spirit throughout. MB
Little known now yet one of the most fascinatingly diverse European jazz labels, often synonymous with the ECM aesthetic, Japo (Jazz by post) existed for some 15 years recording from 1971 to 1985.
It all began with the same artist who first started off ECM in 1969, pianist Mal Waldron, and The Call. History was repeating itself in this one respect.
Then came Dollar Brand, or Abdullah Ibrahim as we know the great pianist today, with African Piano.
Other titles swiftly followed: Barre Phillips’ For All It Is; Herbert Joos’ The Philosophy of the Fluegelhorn; a second Dollar Brand, Ancient Africa, then the obscure Bobby Naughton’s Understanding; Edward Vesala’s Nan Madol; Jiri Stivin and Rudolf Dasek’s System Tandem; Tom van der Geld’s Children at Play; and Enrico Rava’s Quotation Marks.
Japo is often seen as an extension of hippie jazz or New Age with a strong improv twist, but some artists are as little known today as Bobby Naughton and Magog were under the radar even then.
The Jazz By Post years: free spirited and unorthodox in nature
They released the self-titled Magog; and Japo also put out Om album Kirikuki; Manfred Schoof’s Scales; Larry Karush’s May 24 1976; Herbert Joos’ Daybreak; a second Om work Rautionaha; and the first Stephan Micus album, the most prolific Japo artist besides Om, called Implosions.
There were a few British artists on the label, and journalist Ken Hyder’s Talisker released Land of Stone on Japo while the more widely known Manfred Schoof recorded Light Lines. Both these records were produced by former cellist Thomas Stöwsand, later a leading European booking agent, who died in 2006, and who produced many records for the label. Other producers included Steve Lake, Manfred Eicher, and individual musicians.
1977, with Japo only six years in existence, saw Rena Rama’s Landscapes; Globe Unity Orchestra’s Improvisations; and the Swiss quartet Om once again with the clumsily titled Om with Dom Um; and released in 1978 Lennart Åberg had made Partial Solar Eclipse for Japo, while bands such as Contact Trio slipped New Marks out, and the late George Gruntz, Percussion Profiles.
The last batch of label releases saw an increased output from Stephan Micus with Till the End of Time the first; Globe Unity Orchestra’s Compositions; Barry Guy’s Beckettian-sounding (in its title at least), Endgame; TOK’s Paradox; Manfred Schoof, once more, with Horizons; and improv pioneers AMM III’s It Had Been an Ordinary Enough Day in Pueblo, Colorado.
Om, a Japo favourite released Cerberus; while English saxophonist Elton Dean’s Boundaries; Peter Warren’s Solidarity; Tom Van Der Geld / Children At Play Out Patients; Contact Trio’s Musik; Alfred Harth’s Es herrscht Uhu im Land; Micus’ Wings Over Water; Globe Unity Orchestra’s Intergalactic Blow; Micus’ Listen to the Rain and East of the Night, brought the trailblazing label’s output to a conclusion. MB
For the first few bars of Cornucopía it’s like the beginning of a Ladysmith Black Mambazo record. Not surprising really as a South African choir is on hand to inject a sense of vibrant motion to the set. Not typical of the record as a whole, though, these songs speak mainly of the sound of Brazil through and through but with the limber German SWR big band conducted by Ralf Schmid, and the persuasive vocals of Brazilian MPB icon Lins (with a fine spot by Paula Morelenbaum on the evocative ‘Atlantida’), there is plenty of stylistic development. All the songs are Lins’: the tantalising ‘Estrela Guia’ my pick of an appealing set made up of mostly unreleased songs. It’s a slow burner that hints at a separate improvisational dimension that in itself speaks volumes for the musical imagination at play. As the samba-strewn Cornucopía unfolds, the record draws on a Quincy Jones-influenced arranging style to great effect, and the SWR respond with impeccable taste.
Released on Monday 25 March
Ivan Lins, above
With a programme that so far has included US jazz-rock fusion heavyweights Yellowjackets, the Henry Threadgill-inspired improv of the acclaimed Trio Red, a sold out slice of New Orleans with Hot 8 Brass Band, pianist Brian Kellock playing the music of Fats Waller, the intriguingly monikered Trio Elf at the Blue Lamp, as well as blues hero Mud Morganfield, gospel from Ruby Turner, and Courtney Pine, the festival moves to a conclusion tonight with Trio Libero featuring the ‘King of Aberdeen’ himself: Polar Bear’s Seb Rochford. The open-minded trio with Rochford joined by Andy Sheppard and Michel Benita make their Scottish debut. More at www.aberdeenjazzfestival.com
Marian McPartland, radio days
There’s a rare screening next week of a film that recalls the career highlights of pianist Marian McPartland, host of US public radio network NPR’s Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz, the programme that since 1978 has offered a startlingly different look at how pianists present themselves both in conversation and musically.
With Mary Lou Williams and Thelonious Monk in
A Great Day of Harlem, in 1958.
An American radio institution In Good Time, The Piano Jazz of Marian McPartland traces McPartland’s time in the States since leaving England where her jazz story began in the late-1940s and concentrates on the 94-year-old’s tunes and improvisational style down the years, recalling the Hickory House years the 52nd street jazz spot where steaks were on the menu, and sitting-in the order of the day.
Marian McPartland, top and pictured
The screening is on Sunday 24 March at the Stables in Wavendon
For tickets and more details go to www.stables.org
Following quickly on from the death of trad era trumpeter Kenny Ball on 7 March clarinettist Terry Lightfoot has died, aged 77, it’s been announced. Lightfoot had been suffering from prostate cancer, and passed away yesterday, according to ITV news. Born on 21 May 1935 in Potters Bar, the clarinettist and bandleader would go on to lead the Wood Green Stompers while still in his teens, having left Enfield Grammar School and following a brief stint as a reporter on The Barnet Press. He formed his own band, the long-running Terry Lightfoot’s Jazzmen, after RAF service in the mid-1950s, a band Kenny Ball was a member of for a spell. Lightfoot would continue to lead his own bands during his long career in music, although he took breaks for long periods in the 1960s and 70s to run a pub.
Of his records some of his peak early-1960s period has been featured on Lightfoot at Lansdowne, a compilation by trad specialists Lake, with sides originally produced by Denis Preston, better known for his work with Joe Harriott, including ‘Tiger Rag’, ‘Bali Hai’ and ‘Old Man River’. Lightfoot continued performing until last year, with fairly recent shows of his including The Special Magic of Louis Armstrong, Hit Me With A Hot Note, and From Bourbon Street to Broadway along with the Jazzmen who in recent years were joined by his daughter Melinda who survives him, as does Lightfoot’s daughter Michele, and wife Iris.
Terry Lightfoot, above
Always a First Time
Pumpkin Records 2 CDs *** / ****
Recorded over a decade ago Change of Heart was saxophonist Martin Speake’s last big statement but it took a long while to appear, eventually emerging on ECM. Recorded with the late Paul Motian, Mick Hutton, and Bobo Stenson, that album was praised at the time for its Lee Konitz-type clarity and “unhurried” playing. Always a First Time, this new double album released on Speake’s own label, an imprint that two years ago released a quartet album called Live at Riverhouse, retains that palpable sense of patience, beginning at an almost stately pace. The Konitz connection is retained, not just in Speake’s sound but in the presence of former Konitz drummer Jeff Williams returning from the quartet. Speake also dedicates ‘Ramshackle’ to Konitz.
Williams appears in an up-front role throughout the 20 songs just like the other two musicians, with guitarist’s guitarist Mike Outram also performing a crucial function, colouring the sound especially on the Puccini aria ‘O Mio Babbino Caro’ (dedicated to Speake’s father, appropriately). Oddly you don’t miss the bass, but Outram’s skill has a lot to do with this as well as Williams’ ability to make the drums sing.
From the heart: Jeff Williams, above left,
Martin Speake and Mike Outram
The trio covers a great deal of ground only partially explained by the extra canvas the two CDs provide. With songs dedicated to friends, mentors and inspirations Always a First Time is predominantly ballad-driven, but it’s not particularly brooding. More philosophical, and on tracks such as ‘Twister’, on the second CD, there is also a sense of abandon that a quick first listen might not straight away fix on to but is definitely there.
In the notes the author of Love and Will, the existential psychologist Rollo May is quoted to the effect that the creative artist, poet and saint, must fight the gods of conformism, apathy, material success and exploitative power: formidable foes one and all yet May despairs that “These are the ‘idols’ of our society that are worshipped by multitudes of people.” Further quotes within the artwork contribute a sense of aphorism to Speake’s outlook as does his typically thoughtful, but skilfully non-conformist playing.
Recorded in the same room, unseparated, without headphones, the way records used to be made Speake says “we all played from the heart”. And you can tell this when a song like ‘Meditation’, which crops up on both discs with two different dedicatees one of whom includes Fidel Castro, dissolves (on the second disc) into a ‘listening silence’, when you just know the players like what they’re hearing and do not need to push the tune on any more than is strictly necessary in case the mood is spoiled. The second of the CDs has the edge, as it’s a bit more open, but the more orthodox ballad-and- cool school bop approach on the first disc, with songs that include Rodgers and Hart’s ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’ and many fine Speake originals, have an integrity that is a hallmark of Always a First Time. As is its sense of the bigger picture.
Released on 25 March