Review: Alister Spence Quartet/kit Downes And Robert Landfermann Face Off At The Vortex

International jazz collaborations are a lot like family holidays. They’re a nice idea in theory, but the practicalities can be a bit of a nightmare. How do you rehearse when you live on different continents and the time lag on Skype makes everything sound like Sun Ra’s greatest hits?

If last night’s double bill at the Vortex was anything to go by, you squeeze in a practice an hour before the gig or you don’t bother, you just cross your fingers and listen like buggery. For pianist Kit Downes and German bassist Robert Landfermann it all worked out. Their opening set was a thing of beauty, full of intriguing musical narratives that whispered “follow me” and set off through sunlit fields, bright with Copland-esque modality, and dark Teutonic forests plucked from the folklore of The Brothers Grimm.

Landfermann is the bassist with the Pablo Held Trio whose set at the Gateshead International Jazz Festival was one of my gigs of 2014. Back then his fragile harmonics and guttural bow scrapes had me transfixed and there were more of them here. Pushing his bass away from him then holding it close, he conjured delicate pedal points, shrieks and sounds like creaking timbers as Downes pirouetted and twirled. From the shimmering chords that announced the arrival of ‘Waira’, to the jagged theme of ‘Windstille’ and the lowing bass notes that brought ‘Eno’ to a close, the duo seemed to dance around one another, playing with grace and sensitivity.

At times, there was a dance-like synchronicity to the minimalist motifs and silvery melodies played by experimental Australian pianist Alister Spence and his quartet. Yet, on the whole, they seemed less at ease. Marred by miscommunication, ‘Radium’ was a tentative opener – four dancers repeatedly treading on one another’s toes. Scottish saxophonist Raymond MacDonald was clearly finding the sight reading a headache, but he raised his game on ‘Felt’, circular breathing through a boiling, Brötzmann-like soprano feature with his cheeks bulging and the sweat beading on his brow.

‘Brave Ghost’ was more confident and brought the best out of Norwegian drummer Dag Magnus Narvesen who laid into his cymbals while Spence pounded out a deliciously sour mash of chords. Narvesen was similarly impressive on ‘Seventh Song’, preparing his snare drum with cloths, wood blocks and coffee mugs, which produced insect-like chirrups. It was here that Spence came alive too, layering in mesmeric samples of his Australian trio, which had a ghostly, faded quality that ramped up the atmosphere.

‘Another October’, from Spence album Fit, was a highlight thanks to Joe Williamson who took the melody and worked in a whispered bass feature, his lips pursed throughout. But a brace of McDonald compositions were less consistent. ‘A Big Toe’ was a deliberately corny, ‘my first jazz gig’ type number crossed with an agro shred fest that sounded more fun to play than it was to listen to. ‘If You Really Want To Hear About It’ was better and the fragile unison vocals at the end were surprisingly effective.

Still, it was the music of Downes and Landfermann that stayed with me after the gig. In the hurriedly rehearsed, international jazz collaboration lottery, it was their ears that won the day and their numbers that came up.

– Thomas Rees

Review: MILES DAVIS ‘ASCENSEUR POUR L’ÉCHAFAUD’ (LIFT TO THE GALLOWS)

MILES DAVIS 
‘ASCENSEUR POUR L’ÉCHAFAUD’ (LIFT TO THE GALLOWS) (Dream Covers 6089). Miles Davis (t); Barney Wilen (ts); René Urtreger (p); Pierre Michelot (b), Kenny Clarke (d) and others. Paris, 1957; New York, 1958; Hackensack NJ, 1956. ****

Davis’ brooding, improvised soundtrack to 1958 French film Ascenseur pour L’Échafaud gets a reissue alongside takes of ‘On Green Dolphin Street’, ‘Fran-Dance’, ‘Stella By Starlight’ and ‘Love For Sale’ recorded during the legendary ‘58 Sessions. Three tracks (‘In Your Own Sweet Way’, ‘No Line’ and ‘Vierd Blues’) from a 1956 studio date featuring Sonny Rollins’ husky, laid back tenor are also in the mix. The result is a well balanced collection that tempers desolate film noir minimalism with carefree standards playing and places the trumpeter’s soundtrack in its proper musical context. It’s achingly cool throughout. ‘Vierd Blues’ is so relaxed it almost falls over backwards.

– Thomas Rees

This article was published in Jazz Journal in February 2015, Vol 68 No.2

Review: The Miles Davis Quintet Featuring John Coltrane All Of You: The Last Tour 1960

THE MILES DAVIS QUINTET FEATURING JOHN COLTRANE
ALL OF YOU: THE LAST TOUR 1960 (Trapeze ACQCD7076). Miles Davis (t); John Coltrane (ts); Wynton Kelly (p); Paul Chambers (b) Jimmy Cobb (d). Europe, 1960. ****

A fascinating document of Coltrane’s final tour as part of the Davis quintet, this 4 CD set (complete with Carl-Eric Lindgren’s famous interview with Trane and engrossing sleeve notes by Simon Spillett) brings together scattered recordings of shows in Stockholm, Copenhagen, Zurich, Den Haag, Frankfurt and Munich. While sound quality ranges from good to laughable the music is always inspiring. Davis is at his lyrical best while Coltrane sounds both sublime and restless, contributing exhaustive improvisations and grappling with new techniques that horrified audiences at the time. The repertoire is limited (there are eight up-tempo renditions of So What alone) but that only serves to emphasise the imagination of the soloists.

– Thomas Rees

This article was published in Jazz Journal in February 2015, Vol 68 No.2

Review: Cloudmakers Trio – Abstract Forces

CLOUDMAKERS TRIO
ABSTRACT FORCES
Snaggletooth; Angular Momentum; Post Stone; Early Hours; Social Assassin; Ramprasad; Conversation Killer (54.59) Jim Hart (vib); Michael Janisch (b); Dave Smith (d). London, 15–16 December 2013.
Whirlwind Recordings WR4655
****

Abstract Forces is the second album by Jim Hart’s ever-inventive Cloudmakers Trio, the follow up to 2012’s Live at the Pizza Express featuring New York trumpeter Ralph Alessi,  and it’s a strong return. As outstanding as Alessi’s contributions on their debut were, it doesn’t feel as if there’s anything missing without a horn player in the lineup. On the contrary, Abstract Forces feels leaner, meaner, more intense and more visceral. It’s an album of throbbing, contemporary grooves and punchy groove-melodies that see Hart play the roles of line player and rhythmically calculating percussionist all at once.

Tunes like ‘Snaggletooth’ and ‘Social Assassin’ are built around strong, recurring hooks that provide a solid foundation from which the trio can stretch out and free up the time. The former features the first of many face-scrunching solos from Hart, packed full of virtuosic flurries and sidestepping chords that ratchet up the tension before dropping precipitously back into the groove.

The gently swaying melody of ‘Early Hours’ changes the pace, its mysterious modality calling to mind the Ethio-jazz of Mulatu Astatke. As does ‘Ramprasad’, which opens with a gentle melody in vibes and bass that tiptoes towards shimmering chordal pads before disintegrating into a wobbly surrealist soundscape of buzzing, metallic effects.

The intensity of Abstract Forces, combined with the syrupy sound of the Hart’s vibes, does come at a price, however. Though frequent changes of structure and orchestration add further to the variety (even drummer Dave Smith gets to join in with the melody on the final track), you wouldn’t want much more of the trio in a single sitting. But that aside, it’s pretty much flawless.

– Thomas Rees

This article was published in Jazz Journal in February 2015, Vol 68 No.2