Off Minor

Musings of a Jazz geek

Sunday at Coventry Jazz Festival 2007

Posted June 7, 2007

A mixture of stuff to fill the Sunday afternoon and evening (May 28th), all of it at the Cathedral ruins marquee, and all of it in paired sets. (Apologies for the disgraceful posting delay!)

Sunday Afternoon

Bheki Mseleku

Bheki Mseleku Quartet » Bheki Mseleku (piano), Gareth Lockrane (flute), Paul Duncan (bass), Gene Caldeazzo (percussion) «

The afternoon was filled with the double-bill of Bheki Mseleku, and then, secondly, Gwyneth Herbert and her quartet. I was feeling pretty knackered by this point and didn’t really respond to it as well as I could have done… The cold and the terrible bank holiday rains were beginning to set it too. Mseleku played a pretty solid hour and a bit, but it all seemed a bit tentative. Since he had to read their names off a piece of paper, I’m not sure, however, how long before the gig the band had actually first met… But, they were all pretty able… I liked Gene Caldeazzo’s strong polyrhythms… Gareth Lockrane was nice on flute, but struggled to really hold his own on the front-line (the flute itself tending to sound like a bit of a wash). The group seemed to end up playing for a little bit longer than they should have been, and the stage manager hopping up and down in the wings was really seriously distracting…

Gwyneth Herbert » Steve Holness (piano), Al Cherry (guitar), Sam Burgess (bass), Dave Price (percussion), Gwyneth Herbert (vocals) «

‘Jazz-folk diva’ Gwyneth Herbert was entertaining in the second part… but then I’m not generally one for singers, really, so it’s probably unfair for me to comment… I see that songs can quickly generate a wide range of moods, each lurching to some new angle or emotion, and this set was certainly more varied than Mseleku’s. Herbert is a fine vocalist, I think, but, with all this ‘diva’ business it all gets a bit ‘show-business’… It was also frustratingly undemocratic; with Herbert being the single focus, the band never really got much of a chance to stretch out.

Sunday Evening

Abram Wilson

Abram Wilson: Ride! Ferris Wheel to the Modern Day Delta » Abram Wilson (trumpet/vocals), Errol Linton (harmonica), Giorgio Serci (guitar), Gary Crosby (bass), Patrick Clahar (alto saxophone), Ben Burrell (piano), Rod Youngs (drums), Denys Baptiste (t.sax), Michael Mwenso (trombone), Andy Grappy (sousaphone) «

I had seen this ‘act’ last year at the London Jazz Festival, and this Coventry performance was essentially an exact repeat of everything they had done then… It’s basically the stage-version of Wilson’s most recent CD, Ride! Ferris Wheel to the Modern Day Delta (although, disclaimer: I’ve never actually listened to the CD itself). Supposedly it tells the story of some kid wandering across the United States doing something or other with some people, and something else with someone who may or may not be his uncle, and who may or may not run a Jazz club somewhere in the Southern states… The tunes are interspersed with spoken word from Wilson, apparently carrying the story along, but they don’t really make sense by themselves; they sound like fragments of something that may be expanded upon in the record (?), but as fragments they don’t really make sense, and I found it hard (on both occasions) to really follow what was going on.

The band itself is fantastic; most of them Dune records stalwarts, Tomorrows Warriors alumni, etc. Wilson is, himself, a New Orleans ex pat, this record clearly dedicated to that origin of music. The band is tight, but fluid and easy, with strong blues and roots… I really liked the stuff coming from Denys Baptiste, some rip-roaring solos… Abram Wilson himself played pert trumpet lines… The drummer was really expressive… Although I had seen them before, there was more fire overall, this time around… A solid act, fabulously entertaining, and solid swinging jazz (traditional sounding arrangements, but present and fresh). Maybe would be better if they could sort out the weird nonsensical vocal bits (make the narrative a bit more obvious) and loosen up the rigorous ‘act’ a bit (hearing the same ‘off the cuff’ banter on both occasions gets a bit annoying).

Andy SheppardAndy Sheppard and James Morton

Andy Sheppard and the Luna-tics feat. James Morton » Andy Sheppard (tenor/soprano saxes), James Morton (alto sax), Dan Moore (piano), Spencer Brown (double bass), Andy Tween (drums) «

Technically the jazz festival wouldn’t be over until the end of Monday’s Blues in the Ruins but, out of habit, I always miss that bit out… Andy Sheppard brought a fine close to my festival, however, bringing his group the Luna-Tics. Although, I’m not exactly sure what that means, since the rhythm section appeared to have been bussed in, new to Sheppard and James Morton. It seemed to be something of a Sheppard-as-mentor (to Morton) project (if that’s not out of order); Sheppard seemed to be in tight control of the group, but there was a lot of delegation, leaving the majority of solo time to Morton. The group underlined by a powerful drum n bass drum and bass, twin bright saxes making it sound positively futuristic. Sheppard I find intriguing because his fluid, mellow soprano sax lines always seem to verge onto the edge of meandering Smooth, but his great improvisational skill just succeeds in pulling it back from the edge… He played tenor, too, on which he has a slightly more gruff and edgy style. The (young-ish) Morton played riffing post-boppish stuff, mixing in positively with the drum&bass. Specifically, they played a few solid 60’s standards, and then finished with a free-er revolving piece Sheppard called the ‘Hotel Suite’ (first piece: ‘Meet me in the Lobby’), which was apparently a work in progress, and based upon his touring experiences… Essentially this was the most straight-up, ‘safe’ band of the festival headliners, but Sheppard ensured it located itself somewhere much more forward looking than perhaps most other contemporary British post/neo-bop.

Polar Bear, at Coventry Jazz Festival 2007

Posted June 4, 2007

Polar Bear, at Taylor John

Polar Bear at Coventry Taylor John’s House, 26/5/07 » Sebastian Rochford (drums), Pete Wareham (tenor sax), Mark Lockheart (tenor sax), Tom Herbert (double bass), Leafcutter John (electronic percussion) «

It was down to Taylor John’s House, at the Canal Basin, after Stan Tracey’s big band on the Saturday night… The seats taken out of the stage space, standing room only. A mixture of Jazz Coventry Biggin Hall regulars, and a decently wide age cross-section of jazz festival attendees, local fans, and, presumably, those visiting because it was at Taylor John’s.

To this point, I had followed Polar Bear only on record (not that this required a lot of detailed skill). Apart from one song and a half from a gig at the old Vortex, years ago, this would be the first time to see a proper live set, and I admit to pretty ‘eagerly awaiting’ this gig… As it turned out, I reckon I’m pretty lucky to have seen them at this venue… The intimate setting of the small space, close stage, packed and hot audience brought it all magically close.

Seb RochfordSeb Rochford

After a hesitant start, the band assembled and started to move out… A mixture of new tracks (a third studio album patiently awaits) and older tunes off Held on the tips of Fingers (The King of Aberdeen and To Touch the Red Brick are the only names I can remember…). Things sounded a bit free-er than Held on the tips…, but that may have been from the freedom of the live situation itself… Polar Bear seem to have the perfect concept of the jazz tune; the melodies are distinctive hooks that can move and evolve conventionally, but it’s the freedom and fluidity that sets them apart from anyone else. The twin sax line-up of Lockheart and Wareham seems distinctive in it’s unity; they’re playing a single front line for two saxes, rather than two sax lines that meet in the middle. Their playing revolves and weaves around each other, though the standard heads, and through their solo playing. Seb Rochford’s drumming is maybe just the best in the country, just in terms of the movement and detail of the lines, the spontaneity, the constant shifting, and the power that can just crack out at once. It’s all very immediate but constantly surprising.

Seb Rochford and Leafcutter JohnLeafcutter John, Seb Rochford

Leafcutter John was to add a detailed extra dimension from his (I think, mostly) laptop-processed live percussion. Whether it’s glitching a spoon rattling inside a coffee cup, or straining a deflating balloon (on The Balloon Song, no less), he adds an important layer of abstraction to the sound, complementing Rochford’s drumming which sculpts with the rest of the band more directly. The electronics also add a rich extra sound base, to boost the acoustic instruments, and move closer towards the wall of sound.

Polar Bear, at Taylor JohnPete Wareham, Tom Herbert, Mark Lockheart

They played for about two hours straight, including the much demanded extended encore… but it all seemed over so quickly… I was reminded of seeing Tim Berne in his small groups at the Vortex. It’s a wide and detailed sound without necessarily any real definable center; it just envelops you and carries you along wherever. “Play some jazz” someone called out as they closed up… I suppose their music is pretty well within the conventional jazz tradition and the lineages are fairly well intact and observable. I think what I find so special about their act is their union of the hooks of this jazz tradition, with the more extended profundity, raw emotional aspect of the Free music… Does that make sense?

Henri Texier ‘Strada’ Quartet, at Coventry Jazz Festival 2007

Posted June 3, 2007

Henri Texier Strada Quartet, at Coventry Jazz Festival 2007

» Henri Texier (double bass), Sébastien Texier (clarinets, alto sax), Manu Codjia (guitar), Christophe Marguet (drums) «

It’s probably something of a personality deficiency that meant that this was the first I had ever knowingly heard of Texier… His Strada quartet taking the Saturday afternoon cathedral ruins’ stage for a solid workout, a good long single set that started slowly but which steadily built up pace, moving from mellow starts, through stomping rock beats, to unmitigated freedom… Texier’s bass always quite delicate, mild-mannered and understated but, at the same time, full of narrative. He was joined by his son Sébastien on wind; bright but naive-sounding post-bop falling streams… I liked him on bass clarinet; whenever I think of this instrument I usually reference back to the brash tones of Eric Dolphy; this was nicely smooth and liquid… From the word go it was obvious that this was a European quartet, the mood clearly influenced by tones of European folk music (I’m assuming French traditions play some significant role!). The bass clarinet played off this mood well, at times beginning to recreate some sort of accordion texture. The star performance was from Manu Codjia who played consistently evocative electric guitar lines… Glitchy percussion through to growling overdrive. As the set worked through, the pieces became more and more free and, with the end in sight, their final piece featured a pretty major and awesome rocking workout across the rhythm section, Codjia continually inventive, met by Christophe Marguet’s in-motion drumming. For Codjia, Marc Ducret would be my own immediate reference point… Is this some sort of French thing?

I didn’t know what to expect from this group, but it all turned out pretty magically satisfying. This was definitely one of the key festival highlights for me. Shame that the audience was so pitiful in size (small but plenty appreciative; as Texier pointed out, ‘it’s not the quantity, it’s the quality that counts’!). It was difficult, however, to completely separate it out from the surroundings of so much other music. Must try and check them out again, with undivided attention! Anyone care for some Texier CD recommendations?

The Mingus Big Band, and the Stan Tracey Big Band, at Coventry Jazz Festival 2007

Posted June 1, 2007

Quite a few large groups at this year’s festival: Abram Wilson’s large Ride! Ferris Wheel… group on Sunday evening, and two ‘proper’ big bands: the Mingus Big Band (performing here at the mid-point of their UK tour) on the Friday, and Stan Tracey’s (more traditional) big band filling the ruins’ marquee on the Saturday night.

The Mingus Big Band

The Mingus Big Band

» Ryan Kisor, Kenny Rampto, Alex Sipiagin (trumpets), Wayne Escoffery, Craig Handy, Vincent Herring, Abraham Burton, Lauren Sevian, Ronnie Cuber (saxes), Ku-umba Frank Lacy, Conrad Herwig, Earl McIntyre (trombones), Johnathan Blake (drums), Boris Kozlov (bass), Kenny Drew Jr. (piano) «

The Friday became, in fact, something of a Charles Mingus extravaganza, starting with a showing of the decently arty Charles Mingus – Triumph of the Underdog; a film that, as much as possible, tries to convey the man behind the music rather than give the biographical back-story as a history lesson. The last bit gets a bit eulogistic, and seems to turn into a promotional film for Epitaph, but there’s some killer footage (including some wicked stuff with Eric Dolphy), and it’d definitely be worth your while digging out (YouTube, cough). Also solid of the festival to bother putting it on… It’s good to have this sort of thing to help break up the solid continuation of music a bit, but also good to set the main performance (which immediately followed this presentation) in context…

The Mingus Big Band—originally established in 1991, and operating with ‘artistic direction’ from Charles’ surviving wife, Sue Mingus—currently holds a solid residency at NY’s Iridium club, but has just finished touring the UK (and only for the first time, apparently). It’s playing classic Mingus music, arranged for a 3 trumpet, 5 sax, 3 trombone, and rhythm section group drawn out of a larger pool of regular working musicians. Unfortunately, for me, the music didn’t really live up to the (probably justified) hype. The sound was a bit too generic, and the arrangements actually seemed pretty conservative… Although they were playing the standard Mingus tunes, there didn’t seem to be, identifiably, any of the solid Mingus ‘sound’. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, if they’re making their own thing rather than play blind copy-cat homage to his own tradition. In practise, however, the arrangements all came out a bit flat; they were full and dense, but the scope of the band seemed too limiting; the doubling up of instruments seemed to cloud everything into a murky mess, the horns just bleeding into one another. Compounded by a relentlessness and a lack of real dynamics—no real ‘light and shade’—this left the music, for me, fairly impenetrable. I think it’d be a lot better with just a smaller group, maybe an octet or something… Is that the sort of thing Mingus originally tended to write for? Just something to make it a bit more transparent, because there were some brilliant musicians, and there was a great slab of swing rocking back and forth underneath the fog… Wayne Escoffery played some pretty solid solos, with lead trombonist Conrad Herwig the most humble and thoughtful contributor. The rhythm section itself was killer; Boris Kozlov on bass duties (and, according to Alyn Shipton, possibly using one of Mingus’ old instruments) played great personal lines throughout, and there was empathy with powerhouse Johnathan Blake on drums… The final piece of the night rounded off with an extended bass/drum conversational workout which was absolutely worth the ticket price alone…

Cameron Pierre Trio

With Mingus still ringing in my ears, I ran off to catch the end of Cameron Pierre‘s gig at the canal basin’s Taylor John’s House.

Cameron Pierre

» Cameron Pierre (guitar), Anders Olinder (hammond organ), Rod Youngs (drums) «

It was a pretty interesting contrast to the Mingus group because, although the trio was essentially pretty straight up and down not-quite-standards, I found it all a lot more infectously engaging. Pierre was all great winding, heavily vocal, articulate lines. Anders Olinder played great tight, effortlessly matter-of-fact organ lines, and Rod Youngs brought it all together with sensitive drums… Doesn’t have to be complicated!

Stan Tracey Big Band

Stan Tracey Big Band

» Stan Tracey (piano), Nathan Bray, Mark Armstrong, Guy Barker, Henry Lowther (trumpets), Mark Nightingale, Andy Wood, Alistair White (trombones), Nigel Hitchcock, Simon Allen, Brandon Allen, Mornington Lockett, Alan Barnes (saxophones), Andrew Cleyndert (bass), Clark Tracey (drums) «

I had previously seen Stan Tracey in trio format (with Cleyndert and Clark Tracey) ‘supporting’ Wayne Shorter at the Barbican, last year, but wasn’t really overwhelmed. This big band—retaining that same trio as a rhythmic core—was much more invigorating. A hot selection of pieces, some Ellington stuff, Epistrophy and other Monk workings, but covering a range of moods, from hot swing to thoughtful ballads. Nice soloing from Alan Barnes and Mornington Lockett, Guy Barker too, off-hand fluid movements, but lines that strode through the beefy arrangements; clear and definite. Andrew Cleyndert’s bass was particularly fulsome. Even though this is a band working within fairly well-defined territory, and even with the standard big band cliches all present and correct, pasted in to all the right places, it came over much more successfully than the Mingus band… Even if only in terms of clarity. Though I actually first formed interest in jazz music through listening to my grandparents’ big band recordings, once John Coltrane had been discovered, I pushed ‘big band’ away, tired of the cliches and too-slick arrangements. But hearing this powerful band live I think I might have to reappraise that prejudice. Although, I think live is the key, and I’m not sure it could necessarily preserve the fire on tape.

Seeing this has also taught me to reappraise my prejudice against the Godfather himself. At the Barbican, the trio sounded stodgy, clumpy and as cold as granite. On record: Under Milk Wood is good for Starless and Bible Black, but the rest of it seemed too cold and lifeless, melody by numbers and rock hard. But in the context of this (much) larger group, I really liked Tracey’s piano playing; it’s sort of minimalist in a partly Duke Ellington sort of way, almost monophonic, but here it underlined and texturalised the band in a sound that was very profound.

As I snook out at 10 o’clock, to make way to see Polar Bear, the band were still playing through their final suite. The strains and echoes of their sound were bouncing around the cathedral complex, and it sounded so marvelously majestic it was really quite beautiful… Definitely a group that anyone should go out and see, even if you have the same prejudices as me…

Postscript: John Evans has a slightly better review of this gig at Jazz Groove

Bryan Corbett Quartet, and Alcyona Mick Trio, at Coventry Jazz Festival 2007

Posted June 1, 2007

A fair smattering of free gigs across the weekend… Putting them on at lunch time, in places serving plenty of food, made them, on paper, look like warm-ups; but that’s disingenuous… Good music!

Bryan Corbett Quartet, at the Escape Bar

Bryan Corbett Quartet, and Alcyona Mick Trio, at Coventry Jazz Festival 2007

« Bryan Corbett (trumpet), Levi French (piano), Ben Markland (bass), Neil Bullock (drums) »

Friday—the first full day of the festival—set off with Bryan Corbett, at the nice, newish Old Fire Station Escape bar. It opened all pretty solid, really, breezy and open hard-bop sounds; tight, prompt, and together solos, sounding like a Blue Note recording studio from the end of the 1960s. Played a couple of Dizzy Gillespie tunes… Corbett’s horns opening out wide transparent lines… Levi French providing the hard swing on keys, with assistance from Neil Bullock’s back-line percussion. Ben Markland played some nice expressive bass lines and solos. I preferred the second set, only because it was a bit more up, French switching to organ (presumably by the touch of a button) and the band moving into something a little more funky and maybe more contemporary. Corbett trading off the compact drum rides, and French nudging out the powerful funking swing…

Alcyona Mick Trio, at the Herbert Café

Alcyona Mick Trio

» Alcyona Mick (piano), Julie Walkington (bass), Jim Hart (drums) «

(Sorry the photo is so appaling). I nearly didn’t bother with this, but was glad I did… Saturday, noon, at the Herbert art gallery… Saw only about half of it, but a very solid trio, Alcyona Mick’s inspired piano ensuring everything sounded full. Individually, the tunes seemed to slot into a number of definitive styles, but they were all pretty honest; a few decidedly Bill Evans-y, a few definitely heavily Monk-ish, although most of them were Mick originals. I tend to find rhythm section trios get boring too quickly (loosing dynamics) but this swathe of styles (and blind quality) kept it well interesting. They finished the first set with a piece that was very, very Nordic-ly E.S.T (but more subtle!); all they need is the light show, and they’d be completely on their way…

Alec Dankworth – Spanish Accents, at Coventry Jazz Festival 2007

Posted June 1, 2007

Alec Dankworth

Alec Dankworth – Spanish Accents, at the Coventry Biggin Hall 24/5/07 » Alec Dankworth (bass), Christian Garrick (violin), Mark Lockheart (saxes), Phil Robson (guitars), Marc Miralta (percussion) «

The Coventry Jazz Festival guide-booklet lists this as ‘A Taste of Spain’; the Warwick Arts Centre programme as ‘Con Alma’; but, definitively, the bands own flyer puts it as Alec Dankworth’s ‘Spanish Accents’. In any case, the clue is in the title. (Any of them.) A hard-bop, post-hard-bop quintet playing various tunes (covers and originals) of anything with a Spanish twinge… Authenticity established through the inclusion of a real Spaniard—yes, a real one—in the form of percussionist Marc Miralta, this percussion being a conventional drum kit assisted by a (pretty neat, and new to me) cajón. In fact most of the distinctly Spanish sound seemed to come from Miralta and Robson, both: Miralta’s playing consistently, impressively controlled; powerful, intriguing, changing lines. The violin added a nice extra dimension, Christian Garrick using some slight electronics, I think, particularly when called upon to recreate some Spanish bagpipes. (Apparently these are featured on Dankworth’s upcoming, related, CD release.) I was sitting there thinking back how often I’ve seen violin featured in improvising groups recently… More often than I would have imagined a few years ago… Whether that’s a movement real or imaginary I can’t say, but it’s quite interesting; the strings are capable of such a wide range of textures, compared to, for example, just a sax front-line, it’s nice. Mark Lockheart played mannered and industrious solos (is industrious the right word?)… Dankworth’s site claims that this group usually features Julian Arguelles on horns, but Lockheart has apparently been featured throughout this May tour. As for Dankworth himself, he was fluid and lyrical, but seemed to spend a lot of the time ‘running’ the band, as band-leader, leaving most of the staging up to the other players.

The tunes themselves ranged from Dizzy Gillespie, Jack De Johnette and Chick Corea covers, to a selection of homegrown material, some of it based on traditional Spanish melodies. I think it was noticeable that the band sounded best on their own pieces; the tunes had a lot more life and energy to them.

A nice straight-up jazz band, well worth checking out… CD apparently out soon… This gig pretty much opened the Coventry jazz festival, and was playing as a Jazz Coventry event at the Jazz Coventry traditional Biggin Hall…

Alan Skidmore Quartet – at the Coventry Biggin Hall

Posted September 29, 2006

Alan Skidmore at the Coventry Biggin Hall

Alan Skidmore (saxophone), Steve Melling (piano), Ian Palmer (drums), Mick Coady (bass)

Really excellent gig tonight by Alan Skidmore and, what is apparently, his current working quartet. Although Skidmore is well-known as a strong follower of everything Coltrane, tonights gig was particularly heavy (actually, full) of Trane compositions (and arrangements) in a gesture to celebrate what would have been JC’s 80th birthday, last Saturday.

This is the second time I’ve been able to see Skidmore (the first time was also in Coventry), but he’d managed to bring a much better band with him, this time. Actually, a really phenomenal band… Skidmore was on fire throughout… The pianist was able to pull the lever and drop into McCoy Tyner mode as and when required… However, I was totally blown away by Ian Palmer, who is just a truly magnificent drummer. ‘Pulled out a staggering drum solo somewhere towards the end of the first set (a proper extended solo, with the band letting him carry on until he was begging them to come back)… It was probably the best single drum solo that I’ve ever witnessed, just in terms of shear power, fluidity, and also originality and a fantastic sense of lyricism… Rather than just kicking up some great rhythms, everything seemed to be going somewhere with definite purpose. I mean, it’s usual for me to come away from most gigs and decide that that respective drummer is now my best drummer in the world, but this guy Palmer was really something of a surprise!

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