Review: Fatoumata Diawara and Roberto Fonseca, Barbican

The musical traditions of Cuba and Mali leave a capacity crowd in raptures

Though they may be separated by thousands of miles, Cuba and Mali share a common musical connection. Right at the heart of Cuban music lie rhythms from sub-saharan African and last night the two traditions were united once again when Havana-born piano virtuoso Roberto Fonseca (of Buena Vista Social Club fame) took the stage with Fatoumata Diawara, a Malian singer and guitarist who is fast becoming a giant of the world music scene.

The pair first met when Fonseca invited Diawara to feature on his 2012 releaseYo, in which he explored his own African roots. Since then they seem to have been inseparable, touring extensively, shaking up Womad festival and appearing at Jazz in Marciac, where their debut, At Home, was recorded.

It’s a strong release but, as last night’s set proved, it’s nothing on seeing them live. Theirs was a set full of passion and charisma, a blend of fibrous Malian melodies and intoxicating Afro-Cuban grooves in which astonishing feats of musicianship were commonplace.

The dancing rhythms of “Yemaya” set the tone, as Fonseca’s piano raced away and Diawara squared up to the audience, finger wagging, her voice rough-edged and stern. Next came “Sowa”, ushered in by a “Superstition” synth groove, and “Connection”, which saw Fonseca pounding out octaves, his hand a blur, and launching solos for the rest of the band with bursts of swaggering montuno and muscular, cross-handed piano slides that made the keyboard ripple.

“Clandestin” changed the pace, with the pianist taking a backseat in favour of Drissa Sidibé’s kamalen n’goni, a west African lute that sounds like water running over stones. Here and on “Real Family”, a duet with Fonseca, Diawara’s richly-textured voice was the star. It’s a voice full of gravel and grit, that cracks like parched earth as it opens in great yawning stretches, and as the two musicians embraced at the end of the song it had the Barbican crowd cheering themselves hoarse.

So too did “San Miguel”, a rhythmically astonishing game of cat and mouse performed by Fonseca and the band’s Cuban contingent. Bassist Yandi Martínez and drummer Ramsés Rodríguez played like only Habaneros can, spinning out grooves that were at once impossibly together and light years apart and leaving Fonseca’s piano to soar over the top.

The party continued with “Mandela” and “United”, as Diawara unwound her headdress, hitching up her skirts and dancing across the stage with a click of shell-adorned braids. Solos from guitarist Sekou Bah and the rest of the band whipped up the crowd still further and the response was one the biggest Barbican receptions I’ve heard in years. With the whole place on its feet, it took two encores, “Nedbufo” and “Bibisa”, the Fonseca track that first brought these musicians together, before the roars subsided.

There was a sense of theatre about an opening set from French-Israeli singer Yaël Naim and her trio too –  a new discovery for me but a voice I won’t forget. Soft and husky one minute, with a shade of an accent that added to the mystique, and soulful the next, her vocal lines arced through the space like something from The Dark Side of the Moon.

“Dream In My Head”, the first tune that saw her really let rip, and “Coward”, with it’s Bach-y piano lines, sighing cadences and unexpected turns, were both superb. The bubble burst when she departed from her own material and launched a melodramatic rendition of Britney Spears‘s “Toxic”, but for the most part she had the audience transfixed.

As we filed out though, all of the talk was about Fonseca and Diawara and you can understand why. If they keep this up we may well be talking about them for years to come.

— Thomas Rees

Review: Vein And Dave Liebman Get Serious At The Vortex

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A lemur with a life ring, a mock political campaign poster and a picture of the band dressed as pastry chefs – cast your eye over VEIN’s album covers and you might think the Swiss trio were playing it for laughs. But their music is no joke. On the contrary, their appearance at the Vortex alongside American sax great Dave Liebman was strictly no-nonsense. The quartet played just nine tunes in total, the majority drawn from Jazz Talks, their first studio album as a four-piece, yet their set was steely, focused and thrilling in its variety.

First up came an impressionist take on ‘All The Things You Are’ with a lubricious opening salvo from Liebman, full of slurpy bends and mangled harmonics. From there they shifted between ferociously swinging post bop, balladic melancholy and edgy collective improvisation, blurring the lines between freedom and through-composition to the extent that is was impossible to tell one from the other.

‘Negative Space’ peaked with high-pitched soprano wails before melting into a piano feature for Michael Arbenz, which brought sudden shifts from the rhythm section – surging dynamics that broke like waves and landed with a waterlogged thud. Duke Ellington’s ‘Reflections in D’ was all smudgy tenor lines and arpeggiated whirls, while ‘No Change is Strange’ built to fever pitch as the band returned to give the melody a final kicking in the cadenza.

In the second set, Monk’s ‘Evidence’ showed the core trio at their most rhythmically elastic; ‘Black Tortoise’ was undulating and unpredictable, the musical equivalent of walking on a waterbed; while ‘Jammin’ in the Childrens Corner’ was rough-edged and bordering on funky, with fiercely articulated drum rolls from Florian Arbenz.

‘Clear Light’ varied the pace once again, with an extended feature for Liebman on wooden recorder that incorporated chittering, bird-like volleys and haunting melodies with a Native American lilt. ‘Everything for Everybody’ from 2014’s Vote for Vein came with a slip and slide bass solo from Thomas Lähns and saw the swing return, and then it was over. No encore, minimal chit chat and no mention of lemurs or life rings, but more than enough to confirm VEIN as one of Europe’s most exciting jazz trios, and this collaboration with Liebman as one of the most fruitful of their career.

– Thomas Rees 

Julian Argüelles Interview: ‘Even Ellington Had Elements Of Very In And Very Out’

Ahead of his headline appearance at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival on Sunday 3 May, acclaimed British saxophonist Julian Argüelles talks to Thomas Rees about the music of the South African exiles, being an ‘elder statesman’ and playing what feels right

Your latest album, Let It Be Told (reviewed in Jazzwise May issue) is a collaboration with the Frankfurt Radio Bigband, playing your arrangements of the music of the South African exiles. Tell us about it.

It was a labour of love for me because I was connected with the South African scene back in the 80s. I was in Chris McGregor’s band and I played with a bunch of other people – Dudu [Pukwana] and Louis [Moholo Moholo].

That was around the time you were playing with Loose Tubes, along with Django Bates and your brother, Steve Argüelles (both of whom feature on the album, on piano and drums/percussion respectively).

There was quite a South African connection. My brother was in Dudu’s band, Django was in Dudu’s band. Me and Dave DeFries were in Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath, Chris Batchelor was involved and so was Steve Buckley. It was one of the many influences on that band [Loose Tubes].

Was Dudu’s sax playing an influence on you?

It wasn’t a direct influence. I loved his playing. I used to go and see him play a lot and I always really enjoyed it, but I think the way I heard it was very different. The geographical thing is quite important. He’s South African and I wouldn’t really feel like I wanted to copy that. But he also liked the American Jazz tradition and I heard a lot of Ornette in him, a bit of Charlie Parker and freer things as well. We had common interests.

And that’s what attracted you to his music?

He was unique. That’s what I loved about his playing, it was just very distinctive. It felt honest and sort of dangerous. It was quite soulful in the same way Ornette was, or Albert Ayler. I found his compositions totally hip. They were accessible to people who didn’t really like jazz, people who were new to the music. His music was groovy but it also had an element of that free jazz wild thing. There’ve been a whole bunch of musicians who’ve had the polar opposites of the free thing and the groove thing. Miles did it, Sun Ra. I would say Mingus did it. Even Ellington had elements of very ‘in’ and very ‘out’. I’ve always enjoyed that balance between free things and structured things, stuff that’s challenging but accessible as well. I like that mixture.

Why did you decide that now was the right time for this project?

In 2010 it was 20 years since Chris and Dudu died. I put this idea to the Frankfurt Radio Bigband and they commissioned me to write the arrangements and get it organised. We did it three or four times as little tours and then the manager said ‘why don’t you record it’ so I went over for a week with Django and my brother.

Why the Frankfurt Radio Bigband? Did you feel they’d be particularly well-suited to the music?

I was a member of the band for a while (c.2006 – 2010) so I knew the musicians and the managers there. They were interested in finding new music that was connected to the tradition. I think South African music was quite new for them. A lot of people know the American big band tradition but don’t really know other sides of it. They were open to it.

How did you approach the arrangements?

When I’m arranging other people’s compositions usually I try and put a lot more of my own character into it, but I didn’t with this. I don’t think it needed it. I love this music so much and I don’t think it had the air time that it should have done, so I wanted to keep a lot of the original flavour of the music. I studied Chris McGregor’s writing. I was such a fan of it and I was up close so I saw how he worked. He was an amazing writer – unusual and detailed. There were some beautiful things going on in the orchestration. That’s why I didn’t rearrange the one Chris McGregor tune in there, ‘Amasi’. That’s the only one I didn’t arrange. That’s Chris’ arrangement.

What challenges did the project involve?

I was aware that I was writing for a radio big band in Germany, I wasn’t writing for 1970s Brotherhood of Breath. If I had been, perhaps the music would have been a bit freer – there might have been more open spaces. But as an arranger I feel it’s important to write for the musicians performing, not for imaginary musicians.

Did you feel a sense of responsibility given your personal connection and the historical importance of the exiles and their music?

I put some pressure on myself. I didn’t want to bugger it up because I love the music so much!

There are some great solos on the album, including an alto feature by Heinz-Dieter Sauerborn on ‘The Wedding’ and a Tony Lakatos tenor solo over some Tyner-esque piano work on ‘Mama Marimba’.

That’s the good thing about knowing a band; you can choose the right person for the right line. ‘Mama Marimba’ has got quite a modal vibe to it. For me, to go to that Coltrane Quartet feel in the middle felt quite natural and I knew Tony would be the right guy for that.

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You’re appearing with your new septet at Cheltenham Jazz Festival this year. Have you considered adapting any of these arrangements to play with them, or is the exiles project a one off?

The septet is going to be new arrangements of my own music, some quartet music that I’ve been writing. That’s been recorded [for quartet] and it’s going to come out later in the year as well, in September on Whirlwind Recordings.

Talk us through the line-up of the septet. You’ve got some fantastic young players on board, including pianist Kit Downes, drummer James Maddren and bassist Sam Lasserson (above).

It’s like I’m the elder statesman. They’re all in their late twenties/early thirties. I played with Kit in a couple of other situations and we got on very well musically and I played with James Maddren with Gwilym Simcock. The energy was really good. I was ready to have a regular UK band. I had a quartet in the ’90s with [guitarist] Mike Walker, [drummer] Martin France and [bassist] Steve Watts and we did a lot of gigs but then we drifted apart. Then I had a trio for a number of years with two guys from New York, Tom Rainey and Michael Formanek. Working with these new guys feels so comfortable and easy. They sound great but they’re also very quick. Young musicians are very quick at getting things together, perhaps a little bit quicker than my generation. They’re a bit quicker at reading and playing tricky music.

Why do you think that is? Is it down to conservatoire training?

It might be to do with that but also because music has changed. The American tradition was a huge thing when I was coming up and then there was a kind of sea change. Everyone was looking for something new. There were a lot of European classical influences, there was the M-base thing with Steve Coleman, which was odd metre stuff – different languages. Because of the nature of the scene you had to play in lots of different bands and often you had to get things together really quickly. You might have a three hour rehearsal to play two hours of music for a gig that night. You’ve got to be quick. And then the next day it’ll be a different band with a completely different vibe. Just out of necessity people have to be quite versatile. You have to be adaptable.

What about the horn players, trumpeter Percy Pursglove, saxophonist George Crowley and trombonist Kieran McLeod?

The first time I did a gig with Percy he was playing bass and he sounded great. I thought, bloody hell that’s ridiculous and people said, ‘well, you should hear his trumpet playing’. After that he asked me to be on a project of his in Birmingham. When I wanted to get this septet together I knew he was the guy I wanted to get.

I’ve known George Crowley for a long time and I really like his playing. He plays bass clarinet which is important to me because I love the sound of bass clarinet. Kieran I’ve known for a long time as well, because of the Scottish connection. He was involved in a National Youth Orchestra of Scotland thing I did and we met at the Royal Academy when I was teaching there.

You’re admired for your lyricism and your playing is often described as being ‘free from cliche’. Is that something you’re conscious of and something you work on?

It’s always hard talking about your own playing! No. I love melody but I wouldn’t say that I love melody any more than I love harmony or rhythm. For me it’s about getting the balance of all of those things. I think some musicians are but I don’t see that in myself.

I’m not massively into cliche. I like all sorts of styles but what I don’t like is when it’s recreated or rehashed. So if I hear someone playing in a bebop style I don’t really want to hear them playing Charlie Parker language because that doesn’t feel right to me. Or if someone’s into a modal sort of thing I don’t really want them to be sounding like a bad imitation of Coltrane. I like people to be honest and to improvise so they’re not playing language, they’re actually making it up. That’s why I love Lee Konitz, for example, because he seems like a total improviser. The same with Chet Baker. That’s what I’m really after and once you stop letting yourself regurgitate a lot of known language, licks or patterns then you’re forced to play what you hear and to develop something of your own.

Chet Baker, for a long time when I was a kid, was my favourite musician. I absolutely loved his lines. I’ve been influenced by a lot of musicians who are not saxophone players and I think that helps as well. Coltrane and Parker and maybe Dewey Redman are my biggest saxophone influences – I don’t know how obvious that is – but I’ve been equally influenced by Kenny Wheeler, Keith Jarrett, Bill Frisell and Miles, of course.

It’s interesting you mention Kenny Wheeler. You both both have very distinctive time feels. Yours has a lovely slippery quality to it. Is that something you’re aware of?

Kenny is so lyrical. The lyrical thing is a real focal point for his playing. But I don’t see myself as like that. I would like to be and I’ve tried to imitate Kenny on saxophone and I just can’t make it work at all, but I know what you mean about the slippery thing. People have noticed that before. In fact Kenny used to say he thought I sounded like Warne Marsh, which is interesting because he was never an influence on me at all.

I try not to think about other musicians and I certainly try not to think about styles or putting different hats on – thinking this one’s a groove piece so I want to sound like Wilton Felder and this one’s a free thing so I’m going to try and sound like Evan Parker. You just don’t do that. Well, I don’t. It’s a soup of influences and you’re right in the middle of it and you’re not really thinking about it, you’re just playing what you feel is right, what feels good.

– Thomas Rees 

Let It Be Told is out now on Basho Records

This article was originally published on JazzwiseMagazine.com