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Four reviews from the 2016 EFG London Jazz Festival

1. The New Jazz Blueprint

Terrace Martin, Makaya McCraven and Takuya Kuroda at the Jazz Cafe

Bass so heavy it feels like it’s massaging your internal organs. Grooves that walk with a limp, dreamy synth chords prefaced by that little lift (Robert Glasper’s sonic signature) and vicious snare drum backbeats like a captive bolt in your cranium. Beat three. It’s all about beat three.

That. Plus a young crowd, crammed in shoulder to shoulder, nodding heads and bare brickwork and blue light and segues and switches of feel that make set lists feel like mixtapes mixed live. That’s the new jazz blueprint – the defining sound, look and feel of the last few of years. It’s where the momentum is.  Read On…

Review: Match&Fuse Festival London, New River Studios

Alt-jazz and Brexit

Just what Brexit will mean for Europe’s music scene is anyone’s guess – though most people are guessing it won’t be good. A recent BBC News article warned of visas and restrictions on movement discouraging overseas acts from visiting the UK and making it more difficult and costly for UK acts to tour. It hinted at the disappearance of funding bodies too.

Scaremongering? I hope so. Perhaps it will come out in the wash. Right now though the outlook seems bleak and embarrassing for those of us who identify ourselves as musicians and music-lovers of Europe.

We need solutions, but we also need to rail against it all in the best way that we can: against the idiotic nostalgia for an imagined golden age, against mind-forged divisions and pig-headed insularity, and there’s no better place to do that than Match&Fuse, where you can deafen and drown your sorrows in improv and irreverent, pan-European skronk.

Run by Dave Morecroft of UK punk-jazz outfit WorldService Project, M&F celebrates alternative music from across Europe and has branches in Oslo, Rome, Warsaw and Toulouse. This year’s London edition billed itself as “a political ‘up yours’ to the obtuse world we find ourselves in” and came good on its promise by bringing together 23 acts from 14 countries across two days of leftfield music-making.

Saturday took place at East London venues Cafe OTO and the Vortex, as in previous years, with Evan Parker and portuguese trumpeter Susana Santos Silva topping the bill. But I went for Friday, which had the added benefit of being held at New River Studios, a converted furniture warehouse in Manor House run as a not-for-profit arts and performance space, which has just started hosting gigs. It sulks on an industrial estate, a few kicked-in-doors down from Cara House, an old office block full of studios and former squats (naturally, they now go for around £800 a month) that shake with the bass from warehouse parties at weekends. Just the sort of place for some anti-establishment musical agitating.  Read On…

Crimea River

A review of Crimea’s Koktebel Jazz Party for Jazzwise

For a place that was so recently in the eye of a political storm, Koktebel feels negligently laid back. This dusty Black Sea resort town was once a hangout for bohemian intellectuals, most famously turn-of-the-century poet Maximilian Voloshin and his circle, but has been a popular holiday destination since Soviet times. Nowadays it’s a bit like the Crimean equivalent of Margate, or perhaps Skegness, known for its hang-gliding, local brandy and pebbly, naturist beaches – which sounds like an accident waiting to happen.

Wander along the main drag and it’s all bouncy castles and bulgy bronzed bodies, jet skis, inflatables, ferris wheels and shooting galleries, though here they use decommissioned AK47s for the pellet guns. You get the impression that everyday life is much as it was before the Russian annexation of 2014. According to the locals there are slightly fewer tourists around, but it’s still heaving. Business as usual.

Koktebel Jazz Party has never been quite the same however. Founded in 2003 as a joint Russian-Ukrainian venture, it has been Russian-only since 2014, when the Ukrainian contingent left to set up their own version in Odessa. The past two editions have been marred by politics, with artists, including De-Phazz and Arturo Sandoval, pulling out following pressure from their home governments.

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Koktebel © Thomas Rees

I worried a great deal about coming here for fear of tacitly condoning the occupation, saying the wrong thing or indicating any kind of support for the views of the festival’s director, Dmitry Kiselev, a notorious TV news anchor appointed by Putin to head-up government owned news agency Rossiya Segodnya in 2013. He was recently described by The Economist as Russia’s ‘propagandist-in-chief’.

But I was told that the 2016 edition would be different. Koktebel Jazz Party was a cultural event, designed to promote ‘honesty, internationality and artistic freedom’. This year all of the US bands would be announced on the day to avoid any hassle for the musicians and Kiselev (a dedicated jazz fan) would be taking a weekend off from the kind of jingoistic punditry that has landed him on the EU sanctions list – describing Ukraine as a failed state for instance, or making sabre-rattling comments about the size of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.  Politics was to have nothing to do with it.

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Dmitry Kiselev © Evgeniya Novozhenina/Rossiya Segodnya

Almost inevitably, that didn’t come to pass. This year’s logo was red, white and blue for a start (the colours of the Russian flag) and Kiselev couldn’t help mentioning in his opening night speech that Koktebel Jazz had been given a ‘second wind’ by the occupation (questionable when you look at line-ups and photos from previous years). Arina Novoselskaya, Minister of Culture of the Republic of Crimea (one of several political attendees) went a step further, describing the peninsula as ‘the embodiment of a free Russia’ in an address that was anything but apolitical.

With the Russian Ministry of Culture and lead sponsor Smolensk Diamonds fronting the cash, no expense had been spared on the stage, a beachside confection complete with giant video screen and roving red and blue spotlights. Sat in front of it on the first night, in a half empty stand separated from the cheap seats on the beach by a ring of burly security guards in tight-fitting Koktebel Jazz Party t-shirts, I briefly wondered whether this was all just for show, a spectacle for no one but the press and the TV cameras. But then the first of the bands came on, the stand filled up and Kiselev put down the mic and retired to the VIP balcony to survey the scene over a glass of brandy. The next three nights were mostly about the music.

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Takuya Kuroda © Evgeniya Novozhenina/Rossiya Segodnya

Nights one and two were uneven, though the music-loving holiday-makers in the crowd were wonderfully appreciative, needing little encouragement to get up and dance. Shanghai-based trumpeter Li Xiaochuan, a leading light on the Chinese jazz scene, proved himself a superb technician and an imaginative improviser, but his set of indie rock-inspired originals was scuppered by one of several sound-crew meltdowns that left the stage littered with blown amps and agitated roadies. A performance from the Japanese-born New York-based Tachibana Quintet felt a bit thrown together, though Blue Note-signed trumpeter Takuya Kuroda and pianist Martha Kato impressed with some gutsy solos; and we saw our fair share of sketchy vocalists.

Still, there were plenty of high points too. A set from British blues man Julian Burdock, performing with his all-Russian band the 24 Kopeks, was a huge hit with the crowd and brought theatrical guitar, harmonica and washboard solos, along with a cheeky rendition of The Beatles’ ‘Back in the USSR’. Russian/Cuban outfit Mambo Party, led by all-singing-all-dancing frontman Juan Horlendis Baños, delivered hip-swinging grooves; and performances from Georgy Garanyan’s Krasnodar Big Band and Russian pianist Yakov Okun and his International Band were both excellent.

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Yakov Okun’s International Band © Vladimir Astapkovich/Rossiya Segodnya

Garanyan had teamed up with Finnish clarinet player Antti Sarpila for a tribute to Benny Goodman that was all spit and polish – a right royal rumpus full of silky melodies and raucous big band shouts. Okun’s set of intricately arranged standards was an excuse for his all-star septet to stretch out. Horace Silver’s ‘Filthy McNasty’ saw the pianist knit a Monkish cat’s cradle of lines and ‘Body and Soul’ was deeply moving, with passionate solos from trombonist Phil Abraham, Spanish alto player Perico Sambeat and trumpeter Viktor Guseinov, full of age-old phrases and hard won wisdom.

On the final night, the mystery Americans rolled into town, the stand was packed, the sound crew seemed to have ironed out the kinks and the quality remained consistently high. New York Connection were one of several bands formed especially for the festival and featured a rock solid rhythm section of pianist Miki Hayama, bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer Willie Jones III. With Johnaye Kendrick on vocals, ubiquitous tenor player (and festival art director) Sergey Golovnya and trumpeter/bandleader Vitaly Golovnev completed the frontline.

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New York Connection © Evgeniya Novozhenina/Rossiya Segodnya

Golovnev was a semi-finalist in the 2007 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Trumpet Competition (won that year by Ambrose Akinmusire) and proved his mettle in the opening number, an original called ‘Long Hands’ studded with dissonant hits. From there the six-piece swung through some lesser-known standards and straightforward Kendrick compositions. Hayama’s solos, all clambering motifs and nerve-shredding harmonic tension, were a highlight, but Kendrick was the darling of the crowd. When she reached for the top of her register, scatting and stretching notes to breaking point, it brought the house down.

The grand finale was a set from drummer Jimmy Cobb. It was more straightahead jazz, but immensely enjoyable all the same, with fluid, rhythmically inventive piano solos from Alexei Podymkin and some magisterial alto-playing from Vincent Herring. He hurtled through ‘Blue Monk’ quick as a cannonball and poured a lifetime’s worth of language into his flourishing double-time cadenzas. Cobb swung hard but kept things low key before letting loose with a bustling, feature-length solo on Gershwin’s ‘Strike Up the Band’, mouthing the rhythms as he went and taking his applause with an almighty stretch, a playful grimace and a grin. He’s seriously impressive for a man of 87.

When the organisers came back on, Cobb was thanked profusely for ‘being brave enough to come to Russia’. I suppose the implication was that he’d defied a repressive US regime in order to do so and at that point I lost interest.

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View from the beach © Vladimir Astapkovich/Rossiya Segodnya

If you want to find the soul of this festival you have to join the crowds of loved-up couples, hippies in harem trousers and tie dye, and families with babes in arms down to the beach, away from the bright lights and the posturing of the main stand. Sitting out there in the gathering darkness, listening to the lazy lap of the waves and the crunch of pebbles beneath sandy feet as the sound of Legends of Brazil drifted across from the stage, the world of geopolitics seemed very far off indeed. Nationalism and nationality were utterly irrelevant.

The same was true of the sprawling, vodka-fuelled jam sessions that rocked the hotel bar until five am each morning, but, as a whole, the festival isn’t quite there. It still feels as though it has a secondary, if not an ulterior, motive and it’s questionable whether it can ever be truly apolitical while Kiselev remains at the helm. This year was a step in the right direction, but if it wants to emulate its carefree host town and easy going audience and to ensure that boycotts and moral dilemmas become a thing of the past it still has work to do.

– Thomas Rees 

This article was origianlly published on jazzwisemagazine.com

LUME Festival 2016 Review by Thomas Rees

Review: LUME Festival 2016

Toy pianos, operatic theremins and homely vibes

Perhaps it was the intimacy of the performances or the fact that all of the musicians seemed to be old friends, but this inaugural afternoon of music from underground promoters LUME felt as much like a family get together as it did a festival. There was a handmade charm about the whole event and the lineup was refreshing too, with left-field bands from across the UK and some overseas cousins stopping by.

First up were our hosts, LUME founders Dee Byrne (alto) and Cath Roberts (bari) and their four-piece Word of Moth whose rough-and-tumble grooves and tectonic unison sax lines made for a gutsy start. Leeds-based trio Hot Beef Three explored a similar sound-palette, but ramped up the anarchy, mixing baritone screams and pecked alto with agro snare-drum tattoos and feral guitar swipes; while a set from Austrian visitors Blueblut was a wonderfully eccentric jumble of genres that turned up drone music, circus music, psych rock and country, along with crashing waves of drums and operatic Theremin that sounded disconcertingly like Edith Piaf.

Two wholly improvised sets changed the pace. Manchester duo Ant Traditions, featuring guitarist Dave Birchall and Adam Fairhall, hunched over a series of miniature upright pianos, created jangling metallic soundscapes full of ostinati that span like merry go rounds in a surrealist amusement park. A trio performance from Julie Kjær (alto), Rachel Musson (tenor) and Hannah Marshall (cello) was sparser, all shifting moods and luxuriant stretches of silence.

The two larger ensembles on the bill cleaved closest to jazz tradition. Little Church, led by Birmingham keys-player David Austin Grey, drew inspiration from electric Miles and shuffled jazz rock covers with hazy melodies and looping grooves of their own; while guitarist Anton Hunter’s Article XI ensured the festival ended on a high with originals that smashed blazing horn-lines into passages of chaotic group improvisation.

Like all the best family get togethers LUME should be an annual event. This debut was outstanding.

— Thomas Rees

This article was originally published in Jazzwise Magazine September 2016 issue

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

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