Review: Jaga Jazzist, Union Chapel

Jaga Jazzist

Expectations can be dangerous when it comes to live music, but sometimes managing them is easier said than done. Go and see a band like Jaga Jazzist, a genre-crossing collective of Norwegian multi-instrumentalists who skyrocketed to fame in 2002 when the BBC named A Livingroom Hush jazz album of the year, and you expect it to be big. Especially when it’s the group’s 20th anniversary tour and you arrive at Union Chapel to find the queue stretching around the block.

As we filed in, I was in rock gig mode, prepared to leave with mild tinnitus, a few new bruises and a stupid grin plastered across my face, but it wasn’t like that at all. Not only were we sat down throughout, in the battered wooden pews beneath the chapel’s cavernous ceiling, it was clear from the support act (30 minutes of polished, rhythmically inventive electronica from Viennese synth maestro Dorian Concept and his trio) that sound levels were going to be on the quiet side of sensible.

On top of all that, Jaga got off to a slow start, arriving on stage in a haze of blue light and opening with a rendition of “Toccata” from 2010 album One-Armed Bandit. Characterised by endlessly swirling synth and directionless vibraphone, it was underwhelming at best and at worst mildly irritating. But as the band found their groove and I prepared myself for a subtler sort of gig, things began to look up.

“Bananfluer Overalt” brought intriguing shifts in colour and intensity along with an introspective clarinet and flute melody that called to mind Gil Evans’ “Sketches of Spain”, before making way for the crackly, broken piano sounds of “Reminders”. One of the highlights of the set, it featured a harmonically sophisticated soprano solo from bandleader Lars Horntveth, an engaging passage of unison vibes and glockenspiel and a tumultuous ending lifted by bellowing trombone.

Just as strong was a nameless new composition that opened with driving bass and drums before collapsing into stuttering electronics. From there a second groove emerged, laying the foundations for heavy guitar riffs, symphonic brass and a scalic synth pattern that swept through the lot. It paved the way for a hard-hitting finish, shot through with synth and drumkit breakdowns, and two euphoric encores, “All I Know Is Tonight” and “Oslo Skyline”. They could still have been louder and more visceral, but I was grinning, and at long last the crowd were on their feet.

– Thomas Rees

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Brilliant Corners: The East London Venue Making Jazz Sound Better

Thomas Rees swings by Dalston’s Brilliant Corners for the second event in their innovative Played Twice series, a new live music night where atmosphere and sound quality are everything and jazz cliché is left at the door

Last week during the EFG London Jazz Festival – as Tomasz Stańko took the stage at the Barbican, Chucho Valdés played to a sell out crowd at Kings Place and John McLaughlin rocked the Royal Festival Hall – a bar on Kingsland High Road held a gig that was every bit as momentous.

It’s a little place called Brilliant Corners, and if you haven’t heard of it that’s because it’s only just started hosting live music. Back in September, the venue put on the first in a series of events called Played Twice, a novel idea for a night that starts off as a record party and ends up as a gig. First there’s a playthrough of a landmark album on Brilliant Corners’ state of the art analogue sound system and then a band made up of top British jazzers reinterpret that recording live in the venue.

“We used to do a thing we called ‘Jazz Night’,” explains Amit Patel (pictured below), owner of Brilliant Corners along with brother Aneesh. “We’d take our speakers and all of the equipment that we had and invite people round to listen to a classic jazz album from start to finish. That was way before this venue, but after the success of doing it we realised that it just works. When we got this place, a friend of a friend knew [trumpeter] Quentin Collins and he was like ‘well you should take it one step further and play live music afterwards’. So we said ‘alright then, fine, we’ll do that’. I think it’s necessary in jazz,” he adds. “There are so many ideas, if you don’t give the audience a chance to hear it again I think a little bit of it is lost.”

With that in mind, the series opened by giving Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz To Come the Played Twice treatment. Collins assembled an all-star quartet featuring trumpeter Byron Wallen, saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, Polar Bear drummer Seb Rochford and bassist Neil Charles and, by all accounts the venue was rammed. It was just as busy last week as I arrived for the second outing, a double play of Wayne Shorter classic Speak No Evil with Collins joining tenorist Tony Kofi, pianist Andrew McCormack, bassist Mark Lewandowski and drummer Enzo Zirilli for the second set.

After a delayed start and a charmingly amateurish introduction from the owners, the lights were dimmed, the kitchen was closed and the metal shutters at the front of the venue came down. “My brother and I think that if you create some kind of ceremony about listening to music it reveals itself better,” said Patel as he removed the record from its sleeve, and he was right.

I’m a child of the 90s, used to shutting out the world with a pair of headphones and listening to albums in fragments, confining them to the background or consuming them on the go. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve sat in the company of friends and listened to an album from start to finish. But for the next 40 minutes I found myself wondering why. As we sat together in the darkness and listened to the opening phrase of ‘Witch Hunt’ blossom out of the speakers, there was something intoxicating about the atmosphere, about the purr of the sleek silver turntable and the crackle and pop of the record.

It was only then that I understood why people are so fanatical about vinyl. It has a warmth and a softness that you don’t get with CD. It wraps the music up in cotton wool and it was perfectly suited to an album like Speak No Evil, emphasising the colour of Hancock’s harmonies, rounding out the harshness of Hubbard’s upper register and adding mellow undertones to the sound of Shorter’s sax. Brilliant Corners’ enviable sound system helps (you can find the full specs here if that’s your thing), and I’m sure the team could talk your ear off about modified tone arms and copper wiring if you wanted them to.

But, refreshingly, there was nothing edgy or try hard about the event and when I asked if they were consciously tapping into the recent vinyl renaissance Patel cut me short. “We’re not consciously tapping into anything,” he said. “We just recognise that sonically it’s much better if you get a really good [vinyl] pressing, a really good needle, a really good amplifier and a really good set of speakers. We don’t do it to be trendy or fashionable.”

They take the same pretension-free approach to the music, and Patel was keen to tell me that he doesn’t “know shit about jazz”, pointing to my notebook and insisting I write it down. He and his brother are just amateur enthusiasts, he maintains, “the most forward thinking” of their friends.

It’s this relaxed approach, along with the deliberate omission of a certain four letter word from most the marketing material, which Patel attributes to the night’s success. “We pushed [the first event] hard because we believe in jazz and we think it’s sad the way it’s not really celebrated, but we did it in a way that’s not ‘jazzy’, so write that in your book,” he says with a smile. “We didn’t adhere to all those jazz clichés which put off so many people. Even the word jazz, it’s like ‘argh, God, jazz’.

“My brother works at a music law firm, but they’re like ‘hey, Aneesh. How’s your jazz bar going’,” he says, putting on a corny American accent. They make fun of him a little bit because jazz isn’t considered to be cool and it is cool. It’s the highest form of art. It’s just a matter of presentation. People think ‘I’m not clever enough for jazz’, but if you let yourself be disarmed and be primal and let it go straight in then it all just makes sense.”

He may well be on to something. The crowd at the Wayne Shorter event certainly didn’t look like your typical jazz audience. Most of them were fresh faced East Londoners who were intrigued by the concept of Played Twice but knew little about the music itself. Yet after the playthrough they were hooked, and when Patel led an impromptu, jargon-free discussion about the importance of Speak No Evil and the challenges of recreating it, they seemed more than happy chiming in.

We talked about the album’s historical context (it was recorded in December 1964, the same month as Coltrane’s A Love Supreme) and about Shorter’s use of harmony, which was cutting edge for the time. Collins highlighted the strength of the ensemble playing (Shorter appeared alongside Freddie Hubbard in the horn section of the Jazz Messengers and had just joined the Miles Davis Quintet with Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter) and then, with the musicians doing their best not to look daunted, it was time to find out if they could do the album justice.

From the flaring lines of ‘Witch Hunt’ to the easy swing of the title track and the tranquility of ‘Infant Eyes’, everything was as it should be – faithful to the original but full of personality. Weaving in bluesy phrases and touches of modern harmony, Kofi used his solos to riff on Shorter’s melodies, while Collins (above) whipped up the crowd with his stinging high register. McCormack (whose solo on ‘Dance Cadaverous’ was one of the highlights of the set) put his stamp on the performance with stacked harmonies and twisting lines which he embellished with gracenotes and a touch of Hancock-style tremolo. Phrasing with the soloists and loosening things up with gutsy cymbal work, Zirilli played a storm, while Lewandowski had Carter’s sauntering style down to a T.

As ‘Wild Flower’ came to an energetic close, I’m sure I wasn’t the only person in the room wishing there were more nights like this. Cheers and whistles broke into rapturous applause and the players seemed touched by the reception. Kofi thanked the audience for being so attentive and Collins took a moment to praise the venue. “I’m sure we all got more out of that one playthrough than we did from 50 listens on our headphones or in our cars,” he said. “Keep supporting the night. It’s about remembering how to listen to music.”

– Thomas Rees

Played Twice returns on 19 December with Keith Jarrett’s My Song feat. Andrew McCormack (piano), Julian Siegel (saxophone), Sam Lasserson (bass) and James Maddren (drums). Nathaniel Facey will lead a performance of Coltrane’s Sound in February, with performances of Monk’s Brilliant Corners and Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda also planned for early 2015.

For more info go to – photos by Miguel Echeverria


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Review: Mehliana + Sons Of Kemet, EFG London Jazz Festival 2013

Heads are nodding in the row in front as a screech of controlled feedback and a layer of treble, like the beam of search light, fills the room. You can feel the bass-drum in your chest, like distant mortar fire, right before the snare snaps your head back and the stuttering fills and bewildering cross-rhythms leave you drowning in a sea of electronic noise.

The closest you’ll get to clubbing in Barbican Hall, last night’s gig featured two acts out on the fringes of jazz. An opening set from Mehliana, a collaboration between legendary pianist and composer Brad Mehldau, and drummer Mark Guiliana, known for his work with Wayne Krantz and Gretchen Parlato, was a hard-hitting blend of improvisation, electronica and drum and bass. On piano, Fender Rhodes and an arsenal of vintage synthesisers, Mehldau unleashed arpeggiated riffs, twisting, gospel-inspired lines and electronic soundscapes. His eyes screwed shut in concentration, Guiliana responded with driving grooves, risking it all on drum breaks of astonishing precision and rhythmic complexity.

In the second half, young London-based quartet, Sons of Kemet, brought raw energy to a stage wreathed in smoke. Tuba player Oren Marshall pounded out bass-lines amidst the clattering fills of the band’s two drummers, Seb Rochford and Tom Skinner. Showcasing his extended technique, Marshall added effects, with sounds like scratching on vinyl and rumbling bass notes that evoked Mehldau’s synths.

“Godfather”, one of two clarinet features for reeds player Shabaka Hutchings provided a welcome change of pace. Its gentle melody, inspired by “Ethio-jazz”, calmed the hall before the band exploded into a finale, tinged with rock and high-stepping reggae.

Neither group were flawless. Mehliana’s set, in particular, lacked variety and saw attentions wandering by the end. But, for pushing the boundaries and capturing the atmosphere of a sweat-soaked underground club in the polite confines of a concert hall, both acts should be commended.

– Thomas Rees

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Review: Charles Lloyd / Joe Lovano and Dave Douglas, Barbican

It’s not easy to write about a gig when you’re still shaking with adrenaline, still less so when that gig is the grand finale of the 2014 EFG London Jazz Festival, the climax to a giddy ten days of world-class contemporary music. But it’s a cross I’ll have to bear, because last night’s performance from legendary saxophonist Charles Lloyd and jazz giants tenorist Joe Lovano and trumpeter Dave Douglas demands it.

Appearing as part of their Sound Prints quintet, completed by young pianist Lawrence Fields, bassist Linda Oh and the ebullient Joey Baron on drums, it was Douglas and Lovano who took the stage first. Described by the trumpeter as “a chance to think about the musical legacy, the life and the spirit of Wayne Shorter”, the group have been touring intermittently for the past 3 years and are due to release their debut album early in 2015 on the Blue Note label. If this appearance was anything to go by it’ll be a formidable contender for jazz album of the year because Sound Prints are breathtaking to behold.

Eschewing conventional structures and forms, they play flighty, malleable music, a tapestry of fragmented melodies, explosive swing, groove and textural free improvisation that feels as if it can go anywhere. Displaying the sort of interactive telepathy that only comes through intimate knowledge of your collaborators and their playing, the rhythm section pushed and pulled at the time, responding to the subtlest of cues from their leaders and flitting between musical metres just when you thought you’d caught up. Solos seemed to begin and end on a whim, with the horn players in particular in the habit of sharing ideas and finishing one another’s sentences.

Opening with Lovano’s “Sound Prints”, the band segued into a wayward, exploratory composition by Douglas called “Sprints” which incorporated the sublist of references to the Wayne Shorter classic “Footprints”. (A rhythmically altered quote from the bassline and just a whisper of the melody at the very end). Then came two compositions written for the group by Shorter himself, “Destination Unknown” and “To Sail Beyond the Sunset”. The latter began with warm colours and an elegant melody that appeared in different guises throughout the piece, closing with a cadenza in which Douglas leaned over and played into Lovano’s saxophone mic, producing an airy, flute-like sound.

A scattered standing ovation prompted a rendition of Douglas’ “Ups and Downs”, a tune that spoke of wide, open spaces and provided the perfect introduction for Charles Lloyd’s etherial Wild Man Suite. A fusion of jazz with influences from Greek and Hungarian music premiered at the 2013 Jazztopad festival in Wrocław, it featured Socratis Sinopoulos on lyra (a traditional Cretan instrument played with a bow) and Miklos Lukacs on cimbalom (a set of strings housed in what looked like an antique writing desk and played with feathered brushes) along with Gerald Clayton on piano, Joe Sanders on bass and Eric Harland on drums.

Showcasing similar powers of interaction, the septet played straight through, with Lloyd contributing wispy melodies and murmuring sax lines and signalling to the soloists when their time had come. Dressed in black ankle boots and a grey fedora, he frequently wandered about the stage, as if investigating the music going on around him. He stood in front of the cimbalom as Lukacs stirred up a cloud of shimmering quarter tones and once even muscled in to play a snippet on the piano. Most engaging of all was his appreciation of the haunting melodies coming from the lyra. As Sinopoulos played, Lloyd came to sit beside him, listening in as if to an ancient tale of loneliness and loss recounted by a wilderness campfire.

There was a calming patience to the music and the dreadlocked bass and piano team waited a long time before shifting the intensity and the volume up a gear, with Harland laying into his kit and Lloyd offering imploring tenor lines that had echoes of Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”. Culminating in a firecracker drum solo, the finale had the audience on their feet and the septet returned for an encore, with Lloyd selecting Hungarian tárogató (a wooden instrument like a soprano saxophone) and then alto flute for a nameless piece of freely improvised soundscapes, bluesy melodies and hip-hop grooves.

Towards the end as he shuffled over to the mic and delivered a passage of Hindu scripture from the Bhagavad Gita over a sparse, textural backdrop it didn’t feel at all out of place. At the risk of sounding like some crystal-worshipping rainbow child, there was undoubtedly a spiritual quality to the performance. Perhaps it’s just the adrenaline talking, but both ensembles seemed to play like musicians possessed, whether by the spirit of Wayne Shorter, of John Coltrane or of some higher musical power.

– Thomas Rees

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Review: Kenny Barron and Dave Holland, Queen Elizabeth Hall

Though pianist Kenny Barron and bassist Dave Holland have worked with pretty much everyone else over the course of their distinguished careers, it’s only in the last few years that they’ve begun performing together regularly as a duo. Their debut album, The Art Of Conversation, was released in September and it was musical conversation that provided the theme for their pre-concert talk on the intimacy of duo playing.

After an accomplished opening set from Jeremy Monteiro, “Singapore’s King of Swing”, and his trio, which managed two EFG London Jazz Festival firsts – the premiere of “Lion City”, Monteiro’s chirpy contribution to the festival’s 21 Commissions Programme and the first ever performance of a Christmas song, a sugary little number called called “Christmas in Our Hearts” – it was time for the duo to put their words into action.

Before the off, both players stressed the importance of keeping time without overcompensating for the absence of a drummer, with Holland praising his partner’s ability to imply a pulse without stating it explicitly. But in the opener, an introspective composition by Barron called “Spiral”, the time felt a little too abstract for comfort. Fortunately, as the pair slipped into a rendition of Charlie Parker’s “Segment”, playing the slinky bebop head in unison, everything seemed to settle down and from there they never looked back.

“Waltz For Wheeler”, Holland’s tender tribute to the great trumpeter and composer who sadly passed away this year, had an air of beautiful strangeness, an enigmatic quality that suited its subject to a tee. Barron’s “Calypso” was the antithesis, a sauntering, sunshiny romp that provoked a melodic, but technically astonishing, solo from Holland and a laugh from the audience when he looped nonchalantly back into the groove, belying the virtuosity of what he had just played.

“Pass It On”, a Holland composition with a swampy blues-rock feel, saw the duo at their interactive best. The bassist smiled and offered whoops of encouragement as Barron chimed in with carefully chosen chords and understated countermelodies. From there, they traded grooves and ideas before drawing things to a close. With the crowd on their feet, the swaggering melody of Monk’s “In Walked Bud” made for the perfect encore, but the highlight of the evening was Barron’s “Rain”, a ballad that shimmered with crystalline harmony and made the most of the lyrical warmth of Holland’s bass.

It brought the best out of the pianist too who revealed new layers to his playing as the set progressed, from gossamer melodies, to bluesy bends and even a few glimpses of Cuban Montuno. Unlike the garrulous Holland, Barron leaves acres of space and as the duo left the stage it felt as if there was so much more that he could say. But then good conversation is as much about holding back as it is letting fly and this was the very best of conversations.

– Thomas Rees

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Review: Black Top With Jamaaladeen Tacuma At EFG London Jazz Festival

I would have been lying if I’d said I was in the mood for this. It had been a long day of coffee-fuelled laptop drudgery and, as much as I love free jazz, the last thing I wanted was to sit through a night of challenging improvised music in deepest darkest Dalston. But, come 11 o’clock I was willing it not to end.

An opening set from tenor saxophonist Seymour Wright and drummer Paul Abbott, collectively known as Xomaltesc Tbobhni, made for a mesmerising start. Facing one another across a darkened stage, they unleashed a relentless barrage of sound. A subtly-shifting acoustic loop of saxophone honks, screeches and whirring, machine-like noises that meshed with thrashing cymbal work and loose tom-tom rolls, it could have been a sonic sketch of some harrowing, mechanised dystopia.

Black Top, appearing with special guests Philip Achille on harmonica and Jamaaladeen Tacuma (a former member of Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time) on bass guitar, took a little longer to find their stride. Five minutes in and I could feel my scepticism beginning to return, but their improvisation quickly gathered pace. Switching between iPad, synthesizer and piano, Pat Thomas stirred up a bubbling broth of electronic noise, adding scampering lines and subversive, hamfisted cluster chords. Orphy Robinson responded with chirpy laptop beats, distorted vocal samples and furious bursts of Xylosynth, while Achille offered wistful melodies, impassioned wails and snaking, chromatic lines.

Dressed in a patterned silk jacket and an orange scarf, Tacuma was at the heart of it all, busting out Jaco-esque bass licks and linking up with Achille on improvised melodies and broken funk grooves. He was instrumental in the sweeping builds and sudden drops in intensity that provided many of the highlights of the set and it was he who led the adrenaline-fuelled handshakes after a final Xylosynth flurry from Robinson brought things to a close.

As he did so, the house erupted into whistles and cheers and I was cheering along with them. This is the sort of improvised music that sucks you in and disarms your scepticism. Go in the foulest of moods and at your most difficult to impress and you’ll come out a delirious evangelist.

– Thomas Rees

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Review: EFG London Jazz Festival: Jan Garbarek And The Hilliard Ensemble Bid Farewell To London In Style

Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek and vocalists the Hilliard Ensemble first performed together in the remote, alpine monastery of St Gerold in 1993. Just over 20 years and three albums later, their partnership is coming to an end as the Hillards go into retirement. Their farewell tour as a quintet has them zigzagging across much of continental Europe but there was something very English about this, their final appearance in London and its air of low-key spectacle.

As we took our seats in the creaking pews of Temple Church, Garbarek appeared on stage. Turning his back to the audience and using the round nave as a vast stone amplifier, he began to play and, from the corners of the chancel, the Hilliards answered, singing fragile multiphonic drones and plodding solemnly towards him.

Much of their set, which ranged from works of plainchant to the hauntingly beautiful ‘Most Holy Mother of God’, written for the group by Arvo Pärt, was solemn too, but there was no shortage of glorious, ethereal moments. Members of the audience closed their eyes in contentment as Garbarek’s soprano soared above the gently unfurling vocal lines and hypnotic, unison sibilants. Glistening like sunlight through stained glass and ringing with an icy fury, it was an angelic fifth voice that lifted the performance and varied the harmonic palette.

On a spritely medieval number with a gentle pulse, the saxophonist stamped his feet and played a string of folk melodies before weaving in a bluesy cadenza. At times his improvised responses whispered of eastern mysticism and there were even hints of bebop chord changes – unmistakable but, somehow, not at all out of place.

As the concert drew to a close, the four singers strayed from their music stands once again, walking through the audience in the penultimate number and leaving through a side door at the very end, with Garbarek in tow. Throughout, no one said a word. Whether out of English reticence or simple good taste, there were no thank yous or goodbyes and, despite multiple standing ovations, just a single monastic hymn by way of an encore. But then there was no need to over do it. Better to go out in style and let a 20-year legacy and an uplifting final programme do the talking.

– Thomas Rees

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Review: Lauren Kinsella And The Gorodi/Ingamells Duo Explore Far Away Lands Aboard The Good Ship Jazz Nursery

You’d be hard pushed to find a more eccentric or imaginative live music event than the Jazz Nursery, a monthly platform for young talent once held under a draughty Southwark railway arch but now stowed away on the lower deck of the Golden Hinde II, a replica of the vessel in which Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the world in the late 16th century, moored on London’s Southbank.

As if in homage to the pioneering spirit of the galleon, this month’s Nursery event featured sets from two groups of sonic adventurers. Trumpeter Miguel Gorodi and drummer David Ingamells got things underway with an engrossing and unpredictable account of Dave Holland’s ‘Four Winds’, blurred by freewheeling lines and textural drum work, following it up with tunes by Thelonious Monk and trad jazz great Kid Ory. Most arresting of all was their treatment of the Hoagy Carmichael classic ‘Stardust’. After the rawness and strut of Ornette Coleman’s ‘When Will the Blues Leave?’, its lonesome melody was shocking in its tenderness and simplicity.

Amongst the varnished woodwork, the lanterns and the slumbering black cannons, rising star vocalist Lauren Kinsella and her trio, comprising former Loose Tubes trumpeter Chris Batchelor and keys player Liam Noble, pushed the boundaries still further. Their wholly improvised second half was one of shifting textures and bold new colours. Kinsella juxtaposed giggles and trills with tongue clicks and nonsensical strings of syllables that blurred and overlapped with the bullfrog croaks and trippy electronics at Noble’s fingertips. Switching between trumpet and cornet and experimenting with a range of different mutes, Batchelor offered rasps, squeals and moments of serene lyricism, once dropping out and rejoining the action in unison with a rising vocal line which he seemed to pick up out of nowhere.

The trio’s approach proved too much for some and there were audible snorts of laughter from a particularly mutinous group on the gun deck. But, they didn’t last long. By the end all but a handful were swept along by the creative intensity of the music, willing participants in a voyage of discovery that carried them into uncharted waters.

– Thomas Rees

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