Logan Richardson Taking Off Interview by Thomas Rees

Taking Off: Logan Richardson

The rising star saxophonist on his Blue Note debut, working with Pat Metheny and drawing inspiration from Pygmy rituals

Talking to Logan Richardson is fascinating, but keeping up is a challenge. When we meet, the 36-year-old altoist has come straight off a heavily-delayed Eurostar from Paris, where he lives, into an afternoon of interviews. He’s wired – sleep-deprived but radiating a nebulous energy – and for the first twenty minutes of our conversation he hardly draws breath, save to lean out of the window of his hotel room and take quick drags from a roll-up (“you don’t mind if I stand do you?”)

I sit, as we slalom through topics ranging from the importance of self-belief to the molecular construction of a saxophone, pygmy fire-lighting techniques, the wisdom of “crazy people who live in the woods” and The Matrix.

Shift, Richardson’s Blue Note debut, has a similarly restless feel to it, accentuated by blazing solos from an all-star band that features Pat Metheny, Jason Moran, Nasheet Waits and Harish Raghavan. Yet it’s anchored by strong melodies and more accessible than his previous albums, Cerebral Flow (2007) and Ethos (2008). I tell him the unison refrains remind me of singing and he lights up.

“I love vocalists! That’s great that it comes off. I like ‘singing’, but with polyrhythmic shifting things happening underneath. With that combination everyone can find something they want. Someone who knows nothing about jazz is probably gonna like it because of that melody and then they’re into everything else that maybe they don’t [understand].”

Richardson’s obsession with vocalists goes way beyond jazz. He grew up in Kansas City, Missouri listening to his parents’ collection of funk, soul and gospel records, and Shift even includes a cover of Bruno Mars’ ‘Locked Out of Heaven’. “I’ve always listened to everything,” he says. “Prince, Olivia Newton-John, R.E.M., The Fugees…I was just speaking with Soweto Kinch. I’ve been hip to his music ever since ‘99 or 2000.”

The music for Shift was composed between about 2009 and 2015. “I compose a lot from piano,” Richardson explains. “I’ll come up with a chord and try ideas. I prefer to do what feels good and figure out what it is after the fact. That way I always keep ahead of myself.

I want to be comfortable being uncomfortable,” he says. “That was the best thing about school: you had teachers who pushed you.” Top of his list of inspiring mentors is saxophonist Ahmad Alaadeen, a legendary figure in Kansas City, who died in 2010. “He was my Morpheus,” Richardson says, dropping another Matrix reference. “At 17 he really set me free.”

From there Richardson went on to Berklee and the New School, where he took lessons with Nasheet Waits. “I’ve always had a thing with drummers,” he says. “I like playing duo. That’s what hooked up my independence, my time and my harmonic strength. I love the way Coltrane and Bird didn’t need anyone. Everything’s clear, with no crutch – no bass, no harmony. I got that with Nasheet, constantly having my butt handed to me in lessons.”

Not long afterwards he joined Waits’ band Equality and then Jason Moran’s Big Bandwagon, playing the music of Thelonious Monk’s 1959 Town Hall concert – which is how he met Metheny.

“We did a commemorative concert at Town Hall in New York in 2009,” he recalls, “I don’t want to make it seem like a movie script, but it was kind of crazy. I woke up the next day and I had this email saying: ‘Hi Logan, this is Pat. I was at the concert last night and I had a great time. I’ve got your first two albums. I love your music. My brother’s been telling me about you since you were 16 in Kansas City…’ He’d been watching me for 20 years!”

Eventually they fixed a date to record. “That was the first time everyone had got together, but there were never really any mistakes,” Richardson says with a grin. “Pat had built, like, seven different sounds… He’s the first person in the studio and the last to leave. It’s impeccable, man. Everything he does, whether people love it or they hate it, they can not deny it. Undeniability is something that I strive for.”

Richardson is just as enthusiastic about the touring band for Shift, which includes guitarist Nir Felder and pianist John Escreet. “I’ve been working the name Shift since 2005/2006,” he explains. “I always loved the idea of the Jazz Messengers: one name, one band, yet they brought through so many bad MFs. I have three different bands that I can bring, but this band is really, really crushing. It’s been like fire from the first time.”

Alongside that, he’s touring with Christian Scott’s Stretch Music, covers super-group the NEXT Collective and pianist Gerald Clayton, whilst developing further ambitious plans of his own. “I want an electric bass, drums and saxophone trio, but with a string quartet comping, “ he says. “Imagine the pianist split into four people, on top of this crunchy, cinematic…yeah.”

He’s also considering a foray into world music, which is where the pygmies come in. “My lady is half Congolese and we went to the village where her father is from,” he explains. “She’s from the Bantu tribe, but in this village there’s also a community of pygmy people. They put on celebrations all night, the Bantu doing their thing around a drum and dancing in a circle for hours and the pygmy sitting around a fire clapping and singing. I was running between the two. It was one of the deepest experiences I’ve ever had… I want to take the band there and record!”

— Thomas Rees

This article was originally published in the August 2016 issue of Jazzwise Magazine

018_jw_Aug16
019_jw_Aug16

Review: Konono Nº1, Rich Mix

Electrified thumb pianos and the power of simplicity

If you care about music you should see Konono No.1. That’s a bold claim I know, but hear me out. I caught their set at the Rich Mix in East London the other week and I can’t stop thinking about it.

Konono are Congolese. They play the ritual music of the Zombo people adapted for electrified likembés (thumb pianos), with crunchy amplifiers and percussion instruments cobbled together from junkyard finds – a reminder that necessity is the mother of invention. They’ve been around since the ‘60s, but played their first gig outside of Africa as recently as 2003, on tour with Dutch band The Ex. Since then they’ve worked with Herbie Hancock,  Björk and Angolan/Portuguese producer Batida; picked up a Grammy nomination and a BBC Radio 3 World Music Award and lost their leader, Mingiedi Mawangu, who died last year aged 85.

His son Augustin Makuntima Mawangu now plays lead likembé – which is the sound everyone latches onto. It’s what they rave about, and with good reason because it’s like nothing you’ve ever heard: swampy and gungy, as if the keys are stuck down with chewing gum and the amp is made from bumblebees and liquid nitrogen.

And yet there are long stretches when you hear nothing from it at all. The bass likembé is there, buzzing in your chest like a defibrillator. There are vocals (half shouted, half sung) and hypnotic percussion grooves that grab you by the hips, but that’s about it.

All of the tunes blur into one. You drift in and out and you dance and your neck is sore from head-nodding. You sweat so much you can’t tell if you’re sweating into your eyes or your eyes are sweating. The lead singer, Pauline Mbuka Nsiala, twerks. The kit player plays to the crowd, launching himself off his drum stool as though it’s an ejector seat. The conguero is topless: his hands are a blur and his chest is gleaming. And then the lead likembé kicks back in and they do it all over again.

The connection with ritual music is obvious. Watching Konono No.1 is like being in a trance. The energy is relentless and the band’s commitment is total. Their sets are proof of the power of simplicity – of just how much you can do with nothing much at all.

— Thomas Rees

— Image Credit: Konono No1 Official

More Info: www.konono.net

Montreux Jazz Festival at 50

Fireworks from Herbie Hancock + Terrace Martin, Avishai Cohen and Quincy Jones

I never met Claude Nobs, the founder of the Montreux Jazz Festival. He died in a skiing accident in 2013, but I feel as though I know him. It would be hard to visit Montreux and not feel that way. There are beaming bespectacled images of him wherever you look. There’s even a street named in his honour, which sounds over the top until you realise what he did for the town. And Montreux is a town. A small one at that, in the crook of the alps at the far end of Lake Geneva, not the sort of place you’d expect to find one of the world’s most celebrated music festivals.

It had a few famous admirers in the days before Montreux Jazz, most of them literary heavyweights. Byron and the Shelleys were fans and Nabokov spent his last years there, living in a suite in the Montreux Palace Hotel, writing and collecting butterflies. The nearby Château de Chillon (a lakeside castle that looks as if it’s been plucked from the pages of children’s book) is a draw and the setting is beautiful.

Sometimes it’s almost too much, so blindingly picturesque you’d think it was staged. When I drew the curtains on the first morning and looked out on a cloudless sky, with the lake a radiant cornflower blue and the mountains shimmering on the skyline, I could have sworn I heard the voice of a director:

“And cue hang-gliders.”

“Can we get that schooner in the shot? Yeah, the absurdly beautiful one with the toffee-coloured wood and the crimson sails.”

“More swifts around the eaves please.”

“Belle Époque paddle steamer arriving in 3, 2, 1 … ”

montreux jazz festival

Photo Credit: Arnaud Derib

It’s gentler and more manageable at dusk, when the lake is the dusky blue of tempered steel and the sky is flushed with pink. Then there’s nowhere nicer to be than the waterfront, where the beautiful people are, beneath the palm trees and the willows, watching boats drift on their moorings and wishing one of them belonged to you.

When the festival is in full swing, the town oozes affluence and youthful glamour. They sell bottles of Montreux-branded Taittinger in the gift shop and you’re all but tripping over Lamborghinis. It makes it hard to imagine it the way it looks in archive footage from the 1950s and 1960s when it was a dull place full of dust sheets and empty hotels – somewhere up-tight retirees went to spill soup down themselves in cavernous dining rooms. It could have sunk without a trace. Instead it’s a honeypot and household name, home to the biggest jazz festival in the world save Montreal. Its great friend and patron Quincy Jones calls it ‘the Rolls-Royce’.

Claude-Nobs

Claude Nobs (Photo Credit: Lionel Flusin)

That’s an extraordinary transformation for a town to undergo and it leaves you wondering just how it was possible. But then you visit Claude’s chalet, tucked away in the mountains overlooking the lake, and you talk to people who knew him and you stop wondering altogether. They tell you about Claude turning up to stuffy press conferences on water skis and about his respect for the musicians. How he’d insist on picking them up from Geneva airport himself, driving them to the chalet and cooking them an elaborate dinner. He was the host with the utmost, they say, but he was also a dreamer, passionate and wildly ambitious. Someone who didn’t take no for an answer.

“Nothing was impossible,” said Mathieu Jaton, Claude’s right hand man and the current CEO of the festival, who showed me round the chalet last winter. You get a sense of that from the decor. It feels less like a home and more like a live-in antiques shop or a museum of music industry memorabilia, from the jazz world and beyond. Every available surface is covered with curios and the whole place is bathed in the honeyed glow of around 30 vintage jukeboxes. There are motorbikes and vespa scooters parked in the hallways, model train sets, walls of toy cars and shelves and shelves of vinyl.

montreux-jukeboxes

There’s a fireproof room to house the festival’s UNESCO-listed sound and video archives and a cinema room to watch them in. Downstairs is a ‘jam room’ complete with Freddie Mercury’s piano and a guitar played by Paul McCartney, where the names in the guest book include D’Angelo, Robert Plant and John McLaughlin. That’s a self-portrait by David Bowie. Over there are some photos of him and Claude on a skiing trip together. The painting by the door? That’s Snoop Dogg holding a cross and extending the hand of benediction. Why, I’ve no idea.

Mathieu remembers Claude returning from overseas trips with kilos and kilos of stuff in his luggage. “We’d say, ‘where are you going to put all of this?’ Oh just by the wall over here.” He was a hoarder, but a hoarder with style and you can’t help but wonder if programming a festival was, to him, just another form of collecting – an extension of the chalet.

Montreux’s collection is certainly comprehensive. Highlights from the archives, released earlier this year, prove that beyond doubt. You’ll spot Oscar Peterson pouring with sweat, beating all hell out the piano and Miles looking like some jazz rock Dumbledore in a multi-coloured jacket and half-moon spectacles. Ella, Nina, Mingus, Prince, Bowie, Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, Sun Ra and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, with a mouth full of saxophones, taking the term multi-instrumentalist quite literally – they’re all there.

1977 oscarpeterson cgeorges braunschweig

Oscar Peterson (Photo Credit: Georges Braunschweig)

Appropriately, this 50th anniversary edition of Montreux felt as though it were made in Claude’s image. It was bigger and more ambitious than ever, 17 days long with 15 stages (seven of them free) plus jazz cruises and train rides, competitions, workshops, gigs in the Château de Chillon and late night raves by the waterfront. Old friends including Charles Lloyd, who headlined the very first festival, back in 1967, were in town and there were numerous tribute concerts too.

BrasilianDream LionelFlusin 03

Brazilian Dream (Photo Credit: Lionel Flusin)

Claude loved Brazilian music. He was one of the first to bring it to Swiss audiences and a Brazilian spectacular in the Auditorium Stravinski, the festival’s main concert hall, was a nice touch. The sizeable Brazilian contingent in the crowd really made it, in particular a man dressed like a magnificent Latino buccaneer with waist-length hair, black winkle-pickers and a diamond stud earring, who sambaed and sang and waved a Brazilian flag. On-stage, the highlight was a turn from mandolin-player Hamilton de Holanda whose solos were astonishing – like showers of sparks.

Claude was a harmonica player, so a set from Geneva-born harmonica virtuoso Grégoire Maret seemed fitting too. It was shamelessly cheesy, but you couldn’t fault the energy. There were soulful grooves and rousing gospel jams, with a guest appearance from UK vocalist Zara McFarlane, and glorious Hammond organ solos from Ondrej Pivec – all filth and holy water.

HerbieHancock LionelFlusin 41

Herbie Hancock with Terrace Martin (Photo Credit: Lionel Flusin – MJF)

Montreux always seems to have the latest gadget (another of Claude’s personality traits, I’m told). This year they were premiering a new video sharing app called Cuts, and as always all of the performances were being recorded in HD, which meant I could watch gigs from earlier in the week – things I’d agonised about missing. Top of my list was Herbie Hancock’s set from the opening weekend. Not just because it was Herbie, but because of who he was working with: Terrace Martin, the production visionary behind Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly.

According to those in the know, it was Martin who introduced Kendrick to jazz. He’s the reason ‘For Free?’ is whipped along by a burning swing feel and the reason Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper and Ambrose Akinmusire appear on the album at all. You may not have heard his name before, but you should remember it. He’s the missing link between jazz and West Coast hip hop, at home in both worlds and uniquely positioned to connect the dots. Along with the likes of Flying Lotus and Thundercat he’s spearheading this LA renaissance.

Herbie knows that, which is why Martin is helping to produce his next album and why he booked him, along with bassist James Genus and drummer Trevor Lawrence for this one-off appearance. Had it not been Montreux’s 50th he wouldn’t have left the studio.

Unfortunately, that also meant most of the new material wasn’t ready and the set wasn’t as fresh as I was hoping it would be. According to Hancock, there were snippets scattered throughout an opening overture, but for the most part the quartet fell back on stock repertoire and Hancock still sidled out of the wings wielding his white keytar to play ‘Chameleon’ as an encore. You really think he’d be bored with that by now.

But even though I was watching it on a TV screen in a strip-lit subterranean room and listening through tinny headphones, there was still plenty to get excited about. There were bubbling funk and R&B jams, with Martin on synth and vocoder, adding ribbity grooves, murmurs and sighs. He played alto too and the anguish in his sound, which complemented the lyrical thrust of To Pimp A Butterfly so well, was instantly recognisable. On ‘Textures’ Hancock really took off, pouring ice water over the groove with dissonant chords and storming through enough ideas to fill a decade’s worth of jazz harmony classes. It’s too early to say for sure, but this project could be a new lease of life for him. I can’t wait to hear the album.

AvishaiCohen MarcDucrest 137

Avishai Cohen (Photo Credit: Marc Ducrest – MJF)

Montreux has taken a lot of flack over the years for its line-up, which, as you’ll have guessed from the names in the archive and the trinkets on Claude’s many mantle pieces, goes a way beyond jazz. PJ Harvey, Simply Red, Muse and Grimes were all on this year’s bill, along with the festival’s old friends Deep Purple, who wrote ‘Smoke on the Water’while staying in the town. Even so, there’s plenty here for jazz purists and those who prefer to roam the leftfield, as two outstanding sets in the Montreux Jazz Club proved.

Backlit by cool blue neon, Israeli trumpeter Avishai Cohen sank the room in shadow with music from his ECM debut Into The Silence, a suite of noirish chamber jazz full of fragile textures and exquisite contrasts. There were gorgeous, delicate moments when it felt as though the music were made of glass, swing feels from bassist Barak Mori that scattered and shipwrecked themselves and piano lines from Yonathan Avishai that drifted like falling leaves and provided glimmers of light amid the gloom. The title track opened with an engrossing introduction from drummer Nasheet Waits in which he ratcheted up the tension with snare drum blurs and tom toms as hollow as war drums, waiting an age before lashing at his cymbals.

There’s a scrappiness to Cohen’s playing that I love. He’s a brawler. A whippet-thin bare-knuckle boxer and a master of the dog-eared phrase. Sometimes his lines are like scribbles or charcoal sketches at others like twists of razor wire, finished with smears and strangled high notes played with hunched shoulders, straight at the floor. Even on the ballads, when the smokiness in his sound comes to the fore, there’s some grit there. An acrid bonfire-y back-note. Just a hint of trouble.

The night before, US saxophonist Chico Freeman and his quartet, who seldom seem to make it to the UK, provided another masterclass in ensemble-playing with a set of surging modal swingers from 2015 release Spoken Into Existence. Dressed all in white, Freeman led from the front with thrusting solos, as the rhythm section ripped the tunes to pieces. Pianist Antonio Faraò added wiry phrases and sledgehammer chords and drummer Michael Baker threw blustery fills into the mix. A series of sunlit hang drum grooves laid down by ‘exotic percussionist’ Reto Weber were the ideal counterpoint – a release from all the superbly-wrought tension.

QuincyJones LionelFlusin 78

Quincy Jones’ 50th Anniversary Celebration (Photo: Lionel Flusin – MJF)

One of this year’s gala jazz gigs was a 50th anniversary celebration curated by Quincy Jones, who visits the festival every year and feels as much a part of the fabric as Claude. It took the form of a variety show, with turns from family members, friends and Jones protégés backed by the pin-point precise Pepe Lienhard Big Band, who’ve worked with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr and swing harder than you’d think possible for an outfit that once placed sixth in Eurovision. There’s a comment in there about Swiss timekeeping, I’m sure of it.

Quincy was in full-on promoter mode. Everyone was “one of the greatest talents he’d ever seen” and “only 21 years old”. Jacob Collier for instance, who kicked off his spell in the limelight with an arrangement of ‘I Wish’, prefaced by richly-harmonised vocoder vocals, and finished up with a straightforward account of ‘Killer Joe’.

New Orleans born pianist/vocalist Jon Batiste proved himself a consummate performer with a soulful take on ‘What a Wonderful World’, full of theatrical pauses, and a stonking Hammond organ blues. Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez brought some latin flair with a funked-up, full fat rendition of ‘Manteca’ and singer Patti Austin (who Quincy describes as his goddaughter) sounded magisterial, paying tribute to Ella Fitzgerald and scatting through ‘How High The Moon’ at breakneck speed.

The most moving moment in the whole evening though was the reception for Al Jarreau (just 76 years old) who hobbled on with his stick to sing ‘Midnight Sun’ and a Vince Mendoza arrangement of ‘I’m Beginning to See the Light’ to rapturous, heartwarming applause. He was back on after the finale, Quincy’s classic ‘Soul Bossa Nova’, along with a beaming, excitable Mathieu Jaton who kissed Al on the head, gave Quincy a painting and paid tribute to Claude himself. The cheers were deafening.

And that’s what stays with you. There’s a warmth and a feel good atmosphere about Montreux that makes it unlike any other jazz festival that I’ve been to. It’s vast and rampantly commercial, but it still feels intimate, generous and fun – like a giant pool party or a fortnight-long soirée at Claude’s chalet. Fifty years after the first incarnation, his spirit lives on.

Thomas Rees

— Lead image credit: Marc Ducrest – MJF

This article was originally published on jazzwisemagazine.com