Review: John Scofield/Dirty Loops, Montreux Jazz Festival 2014

Midway through the Überjam set, a side door opens to my right and Dirty Loops file in to take their seats. Scofield is in full flow; head back, eyes closed, mouth falling open and closing absently, as if chewing on his tremolo-tinged holds like they’re strands of toffee. When the Swedish YouTube sensations file out again just two numbers later I almost feel like stopping them. They would have done well to stick around.

Some sketchy vocals and less-than-convincing originals aside, their uncompromisingly heavy jazz-pop fusion made for a strong first half. Apocalyptic reimaginings of Justin Bieber, Adele, and Lady Gaga shot through with falsetto wails, throaty bass lines, explosive drum breaks, and crackling electronics, whipped up the crowd and saw the group return for two encores. But though their energy and commitment couldn’t be faulted, they tried to do too much and often overstretched themselves. Grooves were cluttered, transitions between sections seemed a little forced and, on the whole, the quality of their writing and arranging didn’t match their considerable talents as performers.

Not so Scofield’s quartet (pictured left) whose set of originals, taken from the first Überjam record (2002) and the follow-up, Überjam Deux (2013), was as flawless in its conception as it was in execution. The ensemble play with all the freedom you’d expect from a jam session, changing gear on a whim and keeping things flexible, yet it never gets boring or feels lacking in direction. In part this is thanks to the wide-ranging references. Tracks like Curtis Knew andAl Green Song were nods to Motown, while elsewhere there were snatches of country music, rock, reggae, and dissonant electronica. Textures and forms were similarly varied and provided the perfect platform for imaginative improvisations.

Scofield featured on almost every track but it felt as if he could have played another 10 sets before running out of ideas. Meanwhile drummer Terence Higgins and bassist Andy Hess kept the grooves locked down and Arvi Bortnick (author of much of the group’s material) added layers of choppy rhythm guitar, watery electronics, distorted modem-like effects and dubby laptop work, editing and altering the ensemble’s sound throughout the gig.

But perhaps most impressive of all was how much the group didn’t play. Melodies and grooves, from the drum and bass-tinged funk of Snap Crackle Pop to the shuffling blues of Boogie Stupid, were simple and pared down, free from unnecessary flash and all the tighter and more engaging for it. So much was implied without being stated explicitly, whether in Scofield’s lines, Bortnick’s masterful comping, Higgins’s blistering drum breaks, or the understated polyphonic brilliance of Hess’s bass. It was this minimalism and maturity, more than anything else, that set the Überjam Band apart. For all their talent, it’s something that Dirty Loops still need to acquire, a lesson they’ve yet to learn.

Photography 2014 FFJM – Daniel Balmat

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Review: Manu Katché at Montreux

It’s impossible not to like Manu Katché. On stage the French-Ivorian drummer is all smiles, clowning around with bassist Richard Bona and joking with the audience. He reduces the Swiss radio presenters to fits of giggles in his pre-concert interview and talks about his love for both jazz and rock with such unrestrained enthusiasm you can’t help but be charmed. Yet it’s eminently possible to dislike his music; not because it’s challenging but precisely because it isn’t.

With the exception of November ‘99, a track from Katché’s 2005 album Neighbourhood with a brooding bass pedal, the drummer’s set of originals was too smooth not to stick in the throat – dominated by sugary, predictable melodies and bland jazz-rock grooves.

Italian saxophonist Stefano Di Battista’s high-energy lines provided some exciting moments and Bona impressed with a brace of vocal features in which he layered up harmonies and tessellating riffs with his loop pedal that enchanted the Swiss crowd. But for the most part the quartet (completed by Belgian keys player Eric Legnini) couldn’t compensate for the repertoire.

Katché in particular failed to thrill and seemed content to sit back, contributing soft rolls, rim clicks and shimmering splash cymbal embellishments but declining to firmly assert himself in the music. Towards the end of the set, when he did finally open up, it was far from stellar. His ideas were pleasant enough but, as a whole, the feature sounded disjointed and uncomfortable. The same was true of some call-and-answer work with Di Battista in which the saxophonist was both the star and the driving force.

In addition to releasing several albums of jazz originals, including three on the ECM label, Katché has spent years on the road with Sting and Peter Gabriel and has worked as a sideman for everyone from Joan Armatrading to the Eurythmics. While a background of that kind needn’t be a problem when it comes to playing jazz, it might explain the drummer’s difficulty when it comes to stretching out. That, and his penchant for cheese.

Katché’s charisma and beguiling “niceness” make his interviews a joy to watch. It’s just unfortunate that his music is “nice” too – perfectly pleasant to listen to, but far from thrilling.

Photo: 2014 FFJM – Daniel Balmat

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Review: Terri Lyne Carrington at Montreux

It’s hard to think of a better name for this drummer-led collective than the Mosaic Project. Not only does Carrington draw from a varied pool of (predominantly female) musicians when deciding the lineup, she takes them through genre-crossing arrangements and originals, piecing together fragments from distinct musical styles, designing wide-ranging sets and finding new colours in old melodies. At times, it feels like listening to her iPod on shuffle. Fortunately she has impeccable taste.

Over the course of their 90-minute performance the group touched on everything from the Beatles to Charlie Parker, choosing a frighteningly up-tempo rendition of Sippin’ At Bells to meet the packed Montreux Jazz Club’s demand for an encore.

Before all that there was the brutalist, contemporary funk of Mosaic Triad, anchored by scowling bassist Josh Hari, and a soulful rendition of Al Green’s Simply Beautiful, one of several features for vocalist Lizz Wright. Chocolatey and bittersweet, Wright’s voice is sublime and she was rightly left alone with the melody. But with the bridge came something fresh; undulating horn lines, given a synth-like edge by trumpeter Ingrid Jensen’s Harmon mute and the addition of Matthew Stevens’ guitar.

Duke Ellington’s Come Sunday, one of the highlights of the set and a track that features on the group’s forthcoming album Mosaic Project 2, was similarly reworked. Its weary, gospel-tinged melody floated above a whirlwind of changing tempos and times, closing with a soft vocal cadenza while the rhythm section caught their breath.

Throughout, the septet provided solos that were as varied as the repertoire. Altoist Tia Fuller unleashed surging, atonal lines that had the audience grimacing with delight, Stevens cut through the texture with fast breaks and steely holds, while Rachel Z’s Fender Rhodes was sultry and sophisticated.

Best of all were features for Carrington and Jensen. The drummer’s improvisations were exploratory and immaculately paced while Jensen’s solos bordered on the schizophrenic, sinking down into the lower register where her sound is all butter and raw brass before soaring upwards, becoming flutters and squeals. She is, without doubt, one of the most exciting trumpet players on the contemporary scene.

The melancholic folk of Nick Drake’s Three Hours, a duo rendition of Nature Boy featuring Carrington and Wright, and the uplifting Walk With Me Lord rounded off a masterclass in jazz fusion. A true musical mosaic; it could scarcely have been richer in its references. I’d pay good money for another 90 minutes with Carrington’s iPod.

– Thomas Rees

Photos (c) 2014 FFJM – Daniel Balmat

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Review: Jack DeJohnette at Montreux

Thomas Rees sees the Jack DeJohnette trio (Matt Garrison, Ravi Coltrane) capture the spirit of John Coltrane on the banks of Lake Geneva

“Jack’s idea was to teach us some music and some history,” says bassist Matt Garrison as he discusses the origins of the group; a gig in Brooklyn in the mid 90s at which they performed a suite of John Coltrane originals. After a break of almost 20 years, they’re playing together once again, celebrating the work of the great saxophonist, with whom all three men have a personal connection. Drummer DeJohnette played with Coltrane in the 1960s, while Matt is the son of his long-serving bassist Jimmy Garrison. Ravi, of course, is Coltrane’s own flesh and blood.

For those who knew him, the pressure to do justice to the great man’s legacy could easily become a burden. But the trio approach his music with freedom and creativity, unpicking classic melodies and varying the set with standards and pieces of their own.

They open with a collective composition that sees Ravi’s soprano slithering over a metallic wash of cymbal and guttural, distorted bass guitar. It builds in intensity before breaking into a fragmented funk groove that sets up DeJohnette’s Seventh D complete with a virtuosic solo from Garrison built on twisting lines, overdriven chords and harmonics that cut through the electronic mist like pinpricks of light.

A nostalgic rendition of Joe Henderson’s Black Narcissus comes next, drifting over textural work from bass and drums, and then we get our first glimpse of Coltrane, with DeJohnette moving to the piano and Ravi stretching out over variations on the theme of Giant Steps.

A slow burner that draws the audience in as it gathers pace, the set feels considered and mature. Lydia, a dedication to DeJohnette’s wife with a three-chord bass hook and a soft soprano solo that peaks with breathless holds, is a further highlight. So too is The Sidewinder, written by Coltrane’s trumpeter Lee Morgan, its loose but steady time refreshing after so much free playing.

DeJohnette, in particular, is inventive and varied throughout, whether tugging at the edges of Blue in Green with impressionistic piano ostinati or kicking his kit around as Ravi leaps off The Sidewinder’s familiar final riff and launches into his second chorus.

The trio’s very best, however, is saved until last when the melody of Wise One breaks through a gentle bass introduction and sends a shiver through the audience. Fragile at first, it grows in strength, culminating in a tenor solo from Ravi that aches with emotion. For a moment it’s as if Coltrane is in the room.

Far from being a burden, the personal connections that the trio have with the great saxophonist’s music prove to be their greatest strength. You can hear how much it means to them to be performing it.

“Some of the tunes we play, things that are more intimate, I wouldn’t want to play it with anyone else,” says Garrison in a pre-concert interview. It’s easy to see why. No other group could play Coltrane’s music quite like this.

– Thomas Rees

Photo credit: 2014 FFJM – Daniel Balmat

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