Review: Freedom Festival, The Vortex

The final day of this new free jazz festival proves British improv is in rude health


It feels strange going to the Vortex in broad daylight and even stranger leaving with the sun still streaming through the windows. Gigs here don’t usually get started much before 9 pm (I’d always assumed that improvising musicians only came out at night) and darkness seems to lend itself to the free jazz atmosphere.

Still, the Vortex by day is not without its positives. I can see what I’m writing for starters and it’s much easier to doodle during the boring bits ;) The musicians look wide awake and the colourful characters nursing restorative cans of Special Brew on the benches in Gillett Square seem altogether less menacing. (They’re actually rather adorable when they’re blinking in the sunlight).

Besides, Freedom Festival, a new event curated by vibes player and electronicist Orphy Robinson and vocalist Cleveland Watkiss, is all about bringing improvised music out of the shadows and into the limelight – giving it the attention it deserves with two full days of workshops and performances designed to showcase new collaborations, build ensembles and inspire the next generation of improvisers. Perhaps daytime makes sense.

After appearances from Tony Kofi’s Sphinx Trio and Byron Wallen, on Saturday, it was down to the Freeform Improv Strings to kick start the final afternoon of the festival. A short improvisation from violinist Alison Blunt and cellist Kate Shortt incorporated beguiling snatches of dialogue along with scampering pizzicato lines and trembling melodies. James O’Sullivan prepared his guitar with spanners and plastic rods producing sudden pops and gargling distortion, and Theo Sinarkis reached for a broken bow, wrapping the limp horse hair around the strings of his bass to delicate, percussive effect.

The session ended with all of the strings on stage for a collective improvisation that opened with palm slaps and yelping guitar before settling into something softer and more mysterious, with special guest Steve Beresford’s piano lines insinuating themselves into the music like white hot nerve fibres.

Next up was flautist Rowland Sutherland and his new quartet, featuring Ansuman Biswas on percussion, Guillaume Viltard on bass and Steve Beresford on piano and electronics. Sutherland has recently returned from studying with shakuhachi  masters in Japan and you could hear it in his playing – in the thumps of air that marked the beginnings of his phrases and in the haziness of his sound, uncannily like that of the Japanese wooden flute.

Bucolic melodies were a recurring feature in the set, which wove together renditions of “Desert Cry” and “Message from the Nile” by McCoy Tyner, Joe Henderson’s “Earth” and Sutherland’s own “Gentle Euphoria”, along with passages of free improvisation. Viltard and Biswas orchestrated chugging, spontaneous grooves and Beresford swiped at the keyboard firing off scatterbrained lines that sank into silky chords of Bill Evans-like purity. There were wheezing riffs set up on bronchial alto flute and bursts of whistling, Clanger-like electronics, yet the development always felt organic. Never forced.

A set from Black Top was just as inspiring. Led by Orphy Robinson on xylosynth and electronics and Pat Thomas on keyboards, the group’s lineup is constantly in flux. Here they were joined by Cleveland Watkiss, saxophonist Rachel Musson, trumpeter Roland Ramanan, bassist Otto Williams and drummer Mark Mondesir, for a performance that was dizzyingly diverse in its references.

Robinson unleashed trippy electronics, dub effects and disorientating vocal samples (“many mumbling mice are making midnight music” was a personal favourite). Williams brought grungy basslines and juddering, stiff-limbed grooves. Watkiss offered poignant laments, soulful refrains and the skiffling sound of beatbox snare drum, and Ramanan and Musson locked horns, orchestrating passages of Brotzmann-like anarchy with Mondesir and Thomas churning away behind them.

There was so much going on I was still making sense of it all as I watched the festival’s closing amateur jam session with budding improvisers from Warriors International’s monthly Vortex ‘Loft Sessions’. It was 6.30 pm. I’d seen old masters and new recruits and the sun was still riding high over Dalston. Whichever way you look at it the future of British improv looks bright.

— Thomas Rees

— Photo credit: Black Top

An edited version of this article was originally published on 

Review: Eliane Elias and Ed Motta, The Barbican


Sometimes seeing jazz gigs feels a bit like trophy hunting. Everyone has a list of targets, and high up on mine, amid transatlantic migrants and flightless rarities seldom seen in the UK, were the names of two Brazilian keys-playing vocalists.

I discovered Eliane Elias during a year at music college when I transcribed her take on ‘But Not For Me’ from Eliane Elias Sings & Plays Bill Evans and got hooked on her supple sense of swing. Ed Motta’s brand of throwback 1970s soul is an equally serious, if more recent, addiction so the chance of seeing them both was always going to be too good to pass up.

Despite a few issues with the sound, they didn’t disappoint. Both chose to focus on their latest releases – Elias with a set of slinky bossas from her latest album, Made in Brazil, supplemented by Brazilian classics like ‘Chega de Saudade’, ‘Chiclete com Banana’ and ‘So Danço Samba’ and two tracks (‘I Thought About You’ and ‘Embraceable You’) from her 2013 Chet Baker tribute album; and Motta with material from 2013 release AOR, arguably his strongest to date. But both musicians went well beyond the recorded versions.

Switching between piano and Fender Rhodes, Elias played with characteristic elegance, imbuing her lines with a coconut palm sway that matched her languid vocals. Yet there was a gutsiness to her playing too and, as she traded solos with bassist Marc Johnson and energetic drummer Rafael Barata, hunching her shoulders and hammering out octaves, glistening grace notes and bursts of tremolo, she sounded less restrained than she does on record.

Motta left most of the instrumental solos to his ultra tight, globetrotting band, comprising French bassist Laurent Salzard; Finnish guitarist Arto Mäkelä; German keys player Matti Klein and Lisbon-born drummer Miguel Casais, allowing him to focus on the vocals. ‘Simple Guy’ basked in a husky, all encompassing warmth, he chewed up the lyrics to ‘Smile’ and growled and whooped through ‘Dondi’, pouting and grimacing with delight.

Gems from his back catalogue got similarly inventive treatment. The urgent bass groove and zappy, sci-fi synth lines of ‘Drive Me Crazy’ were gloriously rendered and ‘My Rules’ became an extended beatboxing breakdown, in which he gnashed his teeth and imitated drum machines, stomach churning bass vocoders, backing vocals and horn lines.

What really stood out though, in both performances, was passion for the music and the milieu in which it was produced. Elias’ set was interwoven with reflections on the beauty of the coastal region of Bahia, anecdotes about Antônio Carlos Jobim’s legendary womanising and biographies of lesser-known songwriters. I didn’t know that Chet Baker’s unaffected vocals and habit of phrasing across the barline was an influence on pioneers of the bossa nova or that Elias first toured with Jobim when she was just 17.

There was a beguiling eccentricity to Motta’s conversation and he seemed most at home joking with the Brazilians in the crowd and persuading them that ‘Colombina’ was a better choice of encore than ‘Manuel’, one of his best-loved tracks. In between, he paid tribute to Dom Salvador (“the first musician to mix jazz, soul and samba”), explained that AOR stands for Adult Oriented Rock, a 1970s sub genre that he worships but playfully derides, and expounded on his love for Magnum P.I., a shining example of “AOR lifestyle” and one of a number of TV theme tunes that have influenced the album.

It would have been nice if the two musicians had played together – Motta features on ‘Vida’, the seventh track on Made In Brazil so that would have been the obvious choice – but I can’t grumble. This was still a dream way to kill two birds with one stone.

– Thomas Rees

– Photo credit: Lucas Secret/Wikicommons

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Seb Rochford and Co, Brilliant Corners

A masterful double play of celebrated Andrew Hill album ‘Smokestack’

If you still haven’t been to Played Twice, a monthly jazz night held at Brilliant Corners in Dalston, I suggest you do something about it. The concept is simple. First there’s a playthrough of a landmark album on the venue’s top of the range analogue soundsystem – an anorak’s dream, all glistening valves and sleek silver turntables – and then a band reinterpret that recording live in the venue.

I first went way back in November for a double play of Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil, and I’ve been a regular ever since. It rarely misses a beat. The musicians are always from the top flight and the sense of ceremony that comes from sitting in a darkened room and listening to a record in complete silence gets me everytime.

The live reinterpretations have tended to stick closely to the original recordings. But last night’s performance of Smokestack, a 1963 Blue Note release by progressive pianist Andrew Hill, led by Polar Bear drummer Seb Rochford, was different.

Hill was joined in the studio by two bassists, Richard Davis and Eddie Khan, and by drummer Roy Haynes. Together they produced an album with one foot in hard bop and the other in free jazz. The harmonies are abstract and dense, themes arrive in fragments, and structures and forms are blurred by scrambling basslines, off-kilter drum work and passages of collective improvisation. It’s a difficult listen, full of nagging tension and delayed resolutions and it relies on texture as often as melody to maintain the interest.

Rochford did away with the piano altogether. Instead he chose two tenor saxophonists, Pete Wareham and Shabaka Hutchings, with bassist Tom Herbert taking care of the low end. The arrangements were lighter and more open than the originals, but they still retained much of the atmosphere and the air of spontaneous exploration. Melodies were given more room to breath, changes in texture and dynamic were more pronounced and there were cross rhythms and grooves to add further interest.

They played the tracks in reverse order and, with Wareham on the tremolo-heavy melody and Herbert setting up probing basslines, the room sank into the shadows of “30 Pier Avenue” – the immediacy of the band’s sound thrilling after the recording. “Not So” was varied in its colours. Rochford’s drum sounds were all sticks and stones, Hutchings’ interpretation of the melody had a roguish, take-it-or-leave-it swagger and Wareham delivered a solo full of mercurial lines and mewling altissimo, never seeming to run out of ideas.

“Wailing Wall” opened with a lone sax riff that meshed with a series of shifting cross rhythms, sliding into a languid melody before rearing its head once more, and “Day After” was cooler than on record with a whisper-soft solo for Rochford, at times scarcely audible over the impassive out-breath of the air conditioning unit.

Best of all was “Smokestack” itself, a hysterical tour de force, which saw the quietly spoken and wryly humorous drummer setting up opposing clapping patterns around the room. Wareham conjured a squirming, rat-run of a solo, full of blind corners and hairpin bends and went head to head with Hutchings on throaty riffs, amidst whistles and furious head nodding from the crowd.

Rochford took a gamble here. He tinkered with a classic recording but it more than paid off. Dare I say it, it was better than the original – more varied, more rhythmically engaging and more melodic. In doing so he’s thrown down the gauntlet for future performers at Played Twice, an event that’s fast becoming one of my favourite jazz nights in London.

— Thomas Rees

— Photo: Miguel Echeverria

This article was originally published on 

Christian Mcbride Trio Make Wigmore Hall Swing

Avant garde jazz is all well and good – I enjoy something brain-scramblingly off the wall as much as the next man – but there are times when only swing will do, and when only swing will do what you really want is Christian McBride, a man who’s built a career out of it. Appearing with his prodigious young trio of pianist Christian Sands and drummer Ulysses Owens Jr for the inaugural performance of his year-long Wigmore Hall jazz series, the great bassist’s set certainly swung, but it had plenty more to offer besides.

From the opening bars of ‘Day By Day’ to the final phrase of ‘Down By The Riverside’, a bluesy romp of an encore, the three men played with next-level polish. ‘East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)’, featuring a whisper-soft drum solo full of theatrical leans and cymbal catches; ‘Good Morning Heartache’, with McBride’s richly bowed bass on the melody; and a tender rendition of Michael Jackson’s ‘The Lady in My Life’ that hovered between jazz and R&B, displayed uncanny dynamic control. Monk’s ‘Raise Four’, in which all three men traded solos and quirky takes on the theme, was an interactive masterclass and ‘Caravan’ was elusive and intangible – a mirage of shifting cross rhythms that brought Owens Jr’s wonderfully subtle musicality to the fore.

ChristianMcbride MG 4140

But it was the virtuosity with which they played that really stood out. Signet ring glinting, his fingers quick-stepping over the strings, McBride’s phrases were both technically astonishing and effortlessly melodic, punctuated by bluesy bass grooves and low end tugs that brought you down to earth with a bump. Sands, who combines the fire of Oscar Peterson with an elegance and lightness of touch that recalls Bill Evans, was just as impressive and it’s easy to see why even Wynton Marsalis is billing him as the next big thing. On ‘Sand Dunes’, a ballad of his own composition and one of a number of tracks to feature on the trio’s upcoming album, Live At The Village Vanguard, his lines unfurled like ribbons of silk and tied the keyboard in knots.

The only thing that was amiss was the pacing. There’s a limit to how much virtuosity you can take before it loses its impact and mid-way through a storming rendition of J.J. Johnson’s ‘Interlude’, with both Sands and McBride unleashing blizzards of semi-quavers, I could feel my attention beginning to wander. If they can keep a little more in reserve rather than giving everything in the first few numbers they’ll be even more swingin’.

– Thomas Rees

– Photos by Roger Thomas