Easy pick of the raft of new ECM releases scheduled for the early part of 2019 is Imaginary Friends by Ralph Alessi

A huge year in prospect for the great label as it celebrates 50 years since Manfred Eicher founded the company, what to expect about this latest album from one of the US’ finest avant jazz trumpeters whose skeletal oblique and deeply poetic sound has lit up our imaginative inner lives for years? 

Well, few real details so far beyond sleek but bland words on a press release but significantly it is the “This Against That” band, who a dozen years ago were active on the Between the Lines label, and which once again finds Alessi with his long time collaborator Ravi Coltrane joining him not only on tenor but also the pretty unusual sopranino saxophone. 

The ex-Steve Coleman pianist Andy Milne is there too plus one of the great avant bassists Drew Gress (known for his work with John Abercrombie, the Claudia Quintet, and Tim Berne) who made a memorable impression on Alessi's masterpiece Baida and the still too underknown drummer Mark Ferber.  

According to ECM the quintet has not recorded since 2010. For this they decamped far from home in America to La Buissonne in France, the “Saturday Morning” studio where Ahmad Jamal made one of his greatest late-period albums. Look for Imaginary Friends in February.

At the Moers festival in Germany in 2018, above: This Against That in scintillating form including on ‘Fun Room’ a composition which is included on the album as the fifth track. The concert in the video took place just before Imaginary Friends was recorded in June. Other tracks, all Alessi compositions, are Iram Issela’, ‘Oxide', ‘Improper Authorities’, ‘Pittance’ [also in the video following on from ‘Fun Room’], ‘Imaginary Friends’, ‘Around The Corner’, ‘Melee’, and ‘Good Boy’. 

Julian Argüelles, above left, John Turville, James Maddren, Robbie Robson and Dave Whitford
Very Wheeler-esque the tantalising pre-order track just up from the choice new John Turville album Head First which is to be released by Whirlwind in late-February 2019.
With a two-horn front line featuring UK sax great Julian Argüelles on tenor and soprano saxophone and Robbie Robson on trumpet, Liam Noble bassist Dave Whitford joins the modernistic John Taylor influenced Turville in the rhythm section along with Britain's version of Jeff Ballard, James Maddren on drums. 
As for the sound quality the album boosts engineering by probably the best living jazz recording engineer of his generation Stefano Amerio who operates out of his own studio in Italy and is widely used by a host of top international jazzers. 
The Turvillians will be on tour all over the place next year: check into www.johnturville.com nearer the time. 

Nancy Wilson died last night at her home in California aged 81 multiple sources in the US report. A star in the 1960s with 8 albums that made it to the higher reaches of the Billboard charts, her hit with the Jimmy Williams/Larry Harrison song ‘(You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am’ won her a Grammy in 1965 for best R&B performance. Later she would win jazz Grammys and a National Endowment for the Arts jazz masters fellowship for lifetime achievement.

More: New York Times report.

Geraldine Brannigan and Phil Coulter

Sometimes it is good to step back and retreat into song. While resolutely easy listening and by that I certainly mean an evening which involves a singalong and a clapalong which this appearance at the theatre by the river Erne on a rainy evening certainly did, Phil Coulter is a bona fide legend of Irish popular music. His songs invade him, he is their vessel, and did us and have done whether we like it or not in Ireland, unless you have been living under a stone, for decades. His songs are as public as can be, for instance sports fans sing his composition ‘Ireland’s Call’ alongside ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’ as an anthem before Ireland’s rugby games. His greatest song of all ‘The Town I Loved So Well’ kept almost to the end was and remains the most moving song ever to be inspired by the Troubles and stands the test of time.

Sat at a white piano the evening began with a solo unsung version of ‘Danny Boy’ how appropriate for a proud son of that most musical city Derry and this was for the large part a solo show. However later in the second half Phil’s wife former Eurovision singer Geraldine Brannigan came out to join him on a stirring version of ‘The Leaving of Liverpool’ and given it is near Christmas ‘Silent Night’ with lyrics both in English and Irish. At the end on the delightful Coulter song ‘Steal Away’ Coulter provided backing vocals to his wife as we in the audience all sang along.

Along the way there were plenty of stories. Some of his older songs do not much appeal to me I must confess and ‘Puppet on a String’ and ‘Congratulations’ were never my cup of tea but I was certainly in the minority of the audience as the latter certainly got gig goers spontaneously clapping along. It is undeniable however how recognisable and familiar they are. 

Coulter’s most unexpected hit he told us was his novelty parody song ‘D.I.V.O.R.C.E’ made famous by Billy Connolly and the words from his rendition still make me laugh the morning after: “Both my wife and my wee scabby dog/Will soon be hauled away/That’s why I spell out all of these words/So as my dog can’t hear.”

So plenty of laughs, Coulter also relayed several funny stories about Ronnie Drew and his time with the Dubliners and serious, personal, songs too: Coulter’s song ‘Scorn Not His Simplicity’ drawing on the experience of his Down’s syndrome son was hard not to shed a tear to. A master of song, nothing more nothing less, a privilege to be there to witness his skill and continuing journey into the heart of song.

Stephen Graham

Phil Coulter continues his tour and plays St. Patrick’s church, Ballyheane in the county Mayo tonight; and the National Concert Hall, Dublin, on Saturday.

To play the National Concert Hall, the Lizz Wright date for your diaries is 21 March


These six writers we return to regularly for insight, instinct, flair, style and reliability. Frankly, such qualities, the rarest of grooves, are hard to find.    

1 Clive Davis
A master of tone, register and pithy recall. Makes the whole reviewing malarkey seem simple.

2 Mike Hobart
“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.”(Christopher Isherwood) It usually is in Hobart’s FT reviews.

3 Natalie Weiner
A storyteller. A reliable often quite funny and refreshingly cynical witness. Music writing rarely gets better.

4 Richard Brody
Grab his literary sensibility and elegant writing style as often as you can. 

5 Greg Tate
Soak up his vital grasp of polemics delivered with a hard hitting passion and knowledge. 

6 Richard Williams
Seeking measured, judiciously formulated, thought-provoking writing? You have arrived at your destination.

Salem 1692

Trump may bang on about witch hunts but John Zorn goes for the real deal, the Salem Witch Trials — which Arthur Miller to quote Marshal Herrick from The Crucible in the headline also found means of expression to explore in his own classic work — in this wildly satisfying concept album Salem 1692 (Tzadik **** RECOMMENDED) with a quartet that plays Zorn’s music happily getting into the presumably berserk spirit of the times with alarming gusto. 

Trevor Dunn on bass guitar mentioned in these pages just the other day, Kenny Grohowski on drums with both Matt Hollenberg and the darker side of Julian Lage on guitar fashion taut brutal relentlessly unfolding prog and punk flavours fired by plenty of electricity and panic that sits “nicely” perhaps not the first word to spring to mind in the circumstances alongside Insurrection. Makes a change from ‘Autumn Leaves’ and that tasteful little bossa playlist we were toying with earlier. SG

While some of his Polyphony bandmates are certainly better known internationally Jasper Blom is clearly no slouch as you can gather by listening to a track from his upcoming double album.

Back home in the Netherlands the saxophonist, whose sound in the questing and challenging post-bop environment grounded in the search for new solutions to a widely interpreted acoustic jazz language is a little like Julian Siegel’s, is touring his new double album which was recorded at Amsterdam jazz mecca Bimhuis earlier this year.

With veteran trumpeter Bert Joris sharing the front line of one of the two groups involved in the project guitarist's guitarist Jesse van Ruller, who has been touring lately in Ireland with David Lyttle, is also on the release as is one of Europe’s most imaginative trombonists Nils Wogram on the second of the two line-ups featured. 

Polyphony is getting a release on Michael Janisch’s Whirlwind label in January, incidentally the same label that put out Siegel’s wonderful Vista earlier this year and which made it into the marlbank 2018 albums of the year. 

Blom is in his early fifties and he has studied under Dave Liebman and Joe Lovano while his sideman playing credits include stints with starry names like Lee Konitz and Conrad Herwig.

A European Jazz Award winner Blom also teaches jazz saxophone at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam. His records so far released between 2008 and 2015 are Statue of LibertyDexterityGravity, and Audacity. Yes another “y” as a suffix on this latest... the full A-Z of this story is still to be written. 

What we expect of a singer of jazz nowadays is anyone’s guess but there are a few obvious factors at play. Take Cormac Kenevey: not only does he tick the mastery of form and style boxes and a certain innate understanding of the sound of jazz because certainly we get all that on Turning Skies but we also and not so happily collect a whole load of maybe not so relatable reheated easy listening nostalgia. Put it this way we have landed back a number of decades. Paul Simon’s ‘Train in the Distance’ certainly matches the album pervasive indulgently wistful mood pointed to by stripped back small group accompaniment. I very much like the soft timbre of Cormac’s voice but hand on heart I cannot love what is on offer. A fluently slick take on ‘Stolen Moments’ maybe adds a more ambivalent edge but there is too much sunny, wide-eyed delight in quantity that does not quite resonate with the best vocal jazz explorations today that tend to be darker and moodier or even better fool you into thinking the songs are like documentaries.  Certainly Kenevey has more depth and skill than he had in his Candid label days when it was just that bit too supper club glossy, now it needs to move further and become a lot less safe. Time to exit the comfort zone. SG

One of the most used and abused terms in jazz you might concede if in a reflective moment is “improvisation”. Yet far from an elephant in the room improvising in whatever form is at the heart of jazz and discussions about it ought not to be avoided. Taken the importance of improvisation as a given, do you want your improv moving the discussion on to be completely “free” and if so how “free” is “free” enough? We can all as listeners be very fussy in a revolt into style. Need it be spontaneous composition and as random as it is possible or sectionally free only? And what about freedom of tonality, pitch, timbral and rhythmic conventions, western or eastern scales or none, microtones, noise? Looking for a road towards enlightenment marlbank turns once again to a classic book by guitarist Derek Bailey, above with Jack DeJohnette, Bill “Panthalassa” Laswell and one DJ Disk. Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music (published by the British Library’s National Sound Archive in 1992) deserves in large chunks to be memorised. Let it, in key parts, be your mantra, it certainly is ours. Bailey is an icon of British free improvised music, a radical music and movement that continues in an albeit drastically different complexion, such is its anti-conservatism and open nature, to this day. The extract below is from the 1993 Da Capo edition of the book and the “Limits and Freedom” chapter, page 142.

“Speculations about the future of free improvisation — its possible popularity or extinction — seem to me totally to misunderstand the function of the activity. Rather like presuming that the course of the sun is affected by the popularity of sun-bathing. It is basically a method of working. As long as the performing musician wants to be creative there is likely to be free improvisation. And it won’t necessarily indicate a particular style, or even presuppose an artistic attitude. As a way of making music it can serve many ends. Paradoxically, and in spite of the earlier arguments, it seems to me now that in practice the difference between free improvisation and idiomatic improvisation is not a fundamental one. Freedom for the free improvisor is, like the ultimate idiomatic expression for the idiomatic improvisor, something of a Shangri-la. In practice the focus of both players is probably more on means than ends. All improvisation takes place in relation to the known whether the known is traditional or newly acquired. The only real difference lies in the opportunities in free improvisation to renew or change the known and so provoke an open-endedness which by definition is not possible in idiomatic improvisation. And this is certainly a great enough difference, but in its moment to moment practice the essentials of improvisation are to be found, it seems to me, in all improvisation, and its nature is revealed in anyone of its many forms. In all its roles and appearances, improvisation can be considered as the celebration of the moment.”