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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 … ”

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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’.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Camping Chairs and Kamasi Washington

My take on Love Supreme Festival 2016 for The Arts Desk

“Can you take a picture of us looking really middle-aged?”

Two woman in their forties are enjoying the sunshine on the opening afternoon of Love Supreme, sipping prosecco from the comfort of their fold-up camping chairs as a charismatic, vapour-voiced Lianne La Havas launches into “Unstoppable”. I watch them scroll through the photos I’ve taken and collapse into fits of giggles. The funny thing is though, they fit right in. They’re doing this festival as it was meant to be done.

The fold-up camping chair is the unofficial emblem of Love Supreme – the leitmotif for the weekend. They’re everywhere. Parked fifty deep in front of the open-air Main Stage and slung across people’s backs as they queue up at the bars. They provide makeshift muster-points (“Where should we meet? At my parents’ chairs?”) and they’re plonked in the middle of some of the festival’s most enduring images. Perhaps my favourite memory of all is of a silver-haired man in a fleece doggedly reading a copy of the Telegraph from the comfort of his camping chair, seemingly oblivious to the hundreds of people all around him, on their feet, swaying contentedly to the sound of Esperanza Spalding’s bass.

The Love Supreme Main Stage

You could go wild at Love Supreme if you wanted to. On Saturday night I met up with some musician friends and we made a stab at it, dancing like idiots to a late-night DJ set from Gilles Peterson and doing the limbo under a pair of inflatable dumbbells. But it felt like swimming against the tide. If you go to Glastonbury to embrace your inner hippy, you come to Glynde Place to embrace your inner (or outer) middle-aged self and a fold-up camping chair is an essential part of the look.

But if it sounds like I’m complaining I’m not. The UK’s only green field jazz festival isn’t in the slightest bit edgy, but I don’t think it’s trying to be. It’s just trying to be a nice weekend out with good music, and that’s something it unquestionably nails. All the essential elements of a festival are here. There are candy-striped fairground rides and over-priced street food stalls; made-up flags for countries that, if they existed, would have zero carbon emissions and relaxed laws on hallucinogenic drugs; and stands selling patterned scarves and brightly coloured dresses under the tagline ‘Goodies From Gambia’. Aside from a few showers on Saturday even the weather behaves itself and, with the sun riding high over the South Downs, the atmosphere is so relaxed it’s almost serene. Oh, and the soundtrack is very good indeed.

Slave to the rhythm: Grace Jones at Love Supreme

Grace Jones and the Average White Band

This is a jazz festival in the loosest sense of the word. The Main Stage, billed as a platform for “artists with a soul and funk lineage” and presumably designed to keep the festival’s accounts team on board, can be hit or miss. The sound of a husky-voiced Kelis belting out “Milkshake” to a backdrop of obnoxious high register trumpet is not one I’ll easily forget. Yet there are far more pleasant surprises than there are shockers.

Seventies legends the Average White Band play the right kind of cheese as far as I’m concerned and they were sounding as funky and tight as ever on Sunday afternoon, while Grace Jones’ Saturday night headline slot was a hoot. It culminated with Jones (68), dressed in nothing but a corset, tribal body paint and the last in a series of outlandish headdresses, hula hooping continuously for upwards of 10 minutes as she introduced the band on “Slave to the Rhythm”; though my favourite costume of all featured a mirrored top hat that gleamed like a radioactive disco ball when sprayed with beams of light.

Erik Truffaz on the Arena stage

Jacob Collier, Swindle and Erik Truffaz

For fans of actual jazz, giant marquees the Big Top (for jazz headliners) and the Arena (for rising stars) offered plenty to get excited about. They’re close enough together that you quickly flit between the two, which is a bonus, and I found myself catching bits of sets that I hadn’t expected to make it to. Some were by musicians I’d seen before, like multi-instrumentalist Youtube sensation Jacob Collier, who wowed the Arena with his frantic, multi-layered covers of “P.Y.T.” and “Close To You”, as well as some insanely danceable tracks from his debut album, In My Room.

Others were new to me. French trumpeter Erik Truffaz, who channelled electric era Miles Davis by floating reverb-enhanced solos over ambient, funk grooves, impressed. As did British producer Swindle and his fleet-footed horn section. “Mad Ting”, a Swindle original that mixed storming trap-inspired drum grooves, horn section hits and lairy vocals laid down by Grime MC JME, drove the crowd wild (not a camping chair to be seen in this set).

Esperanza Spalding transformed

Esperanza Spalding and Scofield/Mehldau/Guiliana

Esperanza Spalding’s wonderfully-freaky, Cream-inspired Emily’s D+Evolution show was more polished than when I saw it first, back in the winter. Musically it was just as wide-ranging, blending blues, funk, trippy show tunes and grungy rock, but the sense of theatre had been ramped up even further. Spalding took the stage dressed in a black and white ball gown, sporting a voluptuous afro, and in the opening number we witnessed her transformation. Strings were pulled, the ball gown became a cocoon (very Kendrick Lamar) and out came Emily, Spalding’s alter-ego, with her braids and her wayfarer glasses, gazing at her outstretched arms as if she’d never seen them before. It was a proper stage show, which is definitely something we could use more of in the jazz world.

A new trio comprising pianist Brad Mehldau, guitarist John Scofield and drummer Mark Guiliana, was less convincing. Musically, it picks up where Mehldau and Giuliana’s duo electronica project, Mehliana, left off. The grooving jams are funkier this time, but the key ingredients – milky synth lines and swirling acoustic piano, thrusting, needle-sharp drum fills and beatpad trickery – are all there. Even so, the set never quite seemed to settle and though Scofield threw some nice ideas into the mix – bluesy bends and bursts of funky, chicken-scratch guitar – he often seemed uncomfortable and unsure of his place. It’s early days though and with more time on the road the dynamic will surely improve.

Slap bass maestro Stanley Clarke

Binker and Moses, Stanley Clarke and Beats and Pieces

MOBO-winning duo Binker and Moses, who held an Arena crowd transfixed with a stripped back set of skronking sax lines and richly textured kit playing, displayed outstanding synergy. As did iconoclastic Manchester big band Beats and Pieces, whose Sunday morning appearance in the Big Top was a welcome slap in the face. Their punchy grooves and anthemic melodies are just what you need after a night on a camping mat, when your eyes feel like they’re made of velcro and you’re brain is a soup of misfiring neurons.

Stanley Clarke’s young band, which includes Georgian piano prodigy Beka Gochiashvili and the borderline terrifying Mike Mitchell on drums, were similarly energetic and their set was one of the highlights of the weekend. They all have ridiculous chops but there were some wonderfully delicate moments in the performance too, led by Clarke on bowed acoustic bass. When he ditched the bow again and played a theatrical slap solo across the length of the fingerboard it brought the house down.

The Next Step let rip

Kamasi Washington

The standout gig of the festival though was LA saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s Sunday night headline slot in the Big Top. Despite what many sections of the media would have you believe, Washington is not the messiah. He’s benefitted enormously from his association with producer Flying Lotus, whose Brainfeeder label released The Epic, and from his work with rapper Kendrick Lamar on To Pimp A Butterfly, which has ramped up his street cred and brought him to a younger, hipper audience. Press hysteria has followed. He’s not reinventing the wheel. His repackaging of spiritual jazz is actually quite old school and there are more virtuosic saxophone players around.

But, and this is a colossal but, he is a phenomenal performer with a presence and onstage charisma that’s impossible to ignore. There’s an incredible rawness to his sound, as if his breath is filled with iron filings, and the power and commitment behind it almost knocks you over. He seems to play with every ounce of his strength, like he’s hell bent on blowing the rivets out of his saxophone. With his double-drumming band The Next Step, all childhood friends united in their commitment to burning swing, shredding behind him, there’s more energy radiating from the stage than you can believe. When they’re all at full stretch it’s like standing in front of an exploding star.

The performance took a similar shape to Washington’s debut in London back in November, with a feature for vocalist Patrice Quinn, a guest appearance from Washington’s father Rickey, on flute, and a ferocious drum-off between Ronald Bruner Jr. and Tony Austin, but we also heard something new. The group recorded seven other albums alongside The Epic in a marathon session in LA and next to drop is Uprising from bassist Miles Mosley. It’s one to watch out for if “Abraham”, featuring Mosley on effects-driven upright and soulful vocals, was anything to go by. The funk groove was so heavy it gave me heart palpitations.

Which brings us back to middle-age. I missed Burt Bacharach’s headline set, the last of the festival. “What’s New Pussycat” was blaring out of the main stage speakers as I packed up my tent. But I heard most of it second hand on the shuttle back to Brighton:

“What the BUS needs now is love, sweet love / It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.”

So ended my first visit to Love Supreme: trapped on a double decker full of 50-somethings singing sickly-sweet Burt Bacharach numbers, fold-up chairs jammed between their knees. I kept my head down and pretended not to like it, but I was smiling on the inside. If it means more weekends like this one, middle-age doesn’t seem such a terrifying prospect.

— Thomas Rees

— All images by Andy Sturman

This article was originally published on theartsdesk.com

Review: Pat Metheny, Ronnie Scott’s

Probably the most flawless small band performance I have ever seen

£100 – £175 is a lot of money to pay for two hours of music, but that’s what it cost to see Pat Metheny at Ronnie Scott’s this week. The guitar great is in town with his new quartet, a dream team comprising British pianist Gwilym Simcock, bassist Linda Oh (a major name on the New York scene who I first saw performing with Joe Lovano and Dave Douglas’ Sound Prints quintet) and drummer Antonio Sánchez, a long-time Metheny collaborator and the composer of the acclaimed score to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman.

Shoehorned in at the bar, with the rest of the club packed to the rafters, I caught the early show on Wednesday night – the first of eight sets, but by no means a warm-up. In fact, it was probably the most flawless small band performance I have ever seen: as slick as Metheny’s Brylcreem guitar sound, and ingeniously choreographed. Read the rest of theartsdesk.com

— Thomas Rees

— Photo by Mattia Luigi Nappi/Wikicommons

Discovering Palenque: Mexico’s Lost City

The path narrowed as it wound through the undergrowth, skirting tangled roots and tracing the course of slender jungle streams. The heat and the humidity were energy-sapping, but I pressed on, snatching lungfuls of heavy, wet air and wiping the emulsion of sweat and suncream from my brow. Above was an unbroken canopy of cedar, mahogany, and young ceiba trees, their trunks studded with thorns as thick as my thumb. Strange birds with haunting calls moved in the branches and all around, cicadas screamed, winding themselves up like alarm clocks and hammering out urgent messages in shrill morse code. The path turned sharply. Webs of pearlescent spider’s silk hung across it in drifts, slung from the bushes and the emerald fronds of ferns. No-one else had been this way for some time.

There are thousands of Mayan ruins in Central America, but few have the charm of Palenque, a jungle-swathed city and UNESCO World Heritage site in southern Mexico, close to the border with Guatemala. This was once the seat of a great Mayan kingdom, a city state which flourished for a thousand years, from ca. 226 BC to ca. AD 799, before its rulers overstretched themselves, its farmers exhausted the soil and its great temples and pyramids were abandoned to the encroaching forest.

It was rediscovered by Spanish explorers in the 18th century and since then more has been written about its history and archaeology than almost any other Mayan site. Walking across the central plaza in the glare of the early morning sun – past the perfectly-proportioned pyramids with their elaborate roof combs and the palace with its many-tiered tower, from which Mayan priests would have observed the heavens – you’re struck by the flamboyance of it all. Nowhere better illustrates the architectural genius and flair of this great civilisation. It’s staggering to think that they did it all with nothing but stone chisels and bent backs.

I sat and ate a mango from my rucksack beneath the shade of a sapodilla tree and tried to imagine what it must have been like at the height of the city’s power: when the temples still had their coverings of stucco plaster, painted a brilliant red; when the aqueduct still carried water from the nearby River Otulum to feed the saunas and bathhouses of the palace; and when the ball court still drew crowds of spectators.

By all accounts the Juego de Pelota was a brutal game, played by two teams using a 4kg rubber ball which they struck with their hips. According to the Spanish chronicler Diego Durán, players could be killed if they were hit in the stomach or the head and often received bruises so severe they had to be lanced open. Losing captains were also routinely sacrificed to the gods, which must have added a further frisson of excitement. Perhaps that’s why modern-day Latinos take their football so seriously. They’re used to playing with a lot at stake.

It’s not just Palenque’s architecture that sets it apart though. The city has also given us a wealth of carvings and inscriptions, which make the breathless climb to the top of every temple emphatically worth the effort. This is the kind of site that brings out the completist in you. I wanted to see everything and I sweated my way up flight after flight of limestone steps to watch the faces of long-dead kings emerge from the aging plasterwork. It takes a while for your eyes to adjust, but then the details begin to reveal themselves, like pages from some ancient Magic Eye – all Mayan world trees, jaguar pelts and quetzal feather headdresses.

It’s because of carvings like these that we know so much about Palenque. They’ve enabled trowel-clutching, Birkenstock-clad archaeologists to piece together a complete ruling dynasty for the city, which began with the reign of the wonderfully-named Quetzal Jaguar (K’uk’ Bahlam) around 431 AD. We know about the sticky, jungle war that simmered between Palenque and the neighbouring states of Calakmul and Toniná, and about Pakal the Great (603 – 683 AD), whose lavish tomb was discovered buried deep in the Temple of the Inscriptions. It was Pakal who oversaw the construction of many of Palenque’s most magnificent buildings and who lifted it to the height of its prosperity. He was found lying in a vast stone sarcophagus, dressed in a funerary mask and a suit made of jade mosaic and gold wire. Hundreds of images were carved onto the sarcophagus’ surface, including one of the King himself, in the guise of the young maize god, escaping the jaws of the underworld to emerge reborn.

The chirping of the cicadas had reached fever pitch and somewhere in the surrounding forest a troop of howler monkeys began calling from their treetop perch, roaring like asthmatic lions. They’re a reminder of the most staggering fact of all about Palenque: only 10% of the site has been excavated. Cross the manicured lawns of the plaza and the river beyond and you’re in the city’s ancient suburbs, among crumbling stone residences, their walls thick with ferns and succulent jungle mosses. Beyond that, who knows. Palenque is no longer a lost city, but isn’t quite found either. It’s thought that there at least 1,000 structures still out there, hidden beneath the trees.

It was then that I saw the path snaking away into the undergrowth and I couldn’t help but follow it, breaking the skeins of spider’s silk and catching my shirt on the thorns of the ceiba to emerge in a boulder-strewn clearing. In front of me was a great mound of earth. Saplings and thick plaits of vine obscured its outline, but there was no mistaking what it was. Steps punched through the leaf litter like stone knuckles. A temple.

I scrambled to the top. An ochre-skinned lizard wriggled through a gap in the crumbling mortar. In the distance the howlers had started up again, sucking in croaky gulps of air and wheezing like punctured bagpipes. A blunt-edged pick axe was propped up beside a tree. Two stone slabs had been rolled away and beside them was a rectangle of black just a few feet across. The earth smelt of dark chocolate and toasted maize. Is this what Alberto Ruz Lhuillier felt like when he discovered the tomb of Pakal? I slid onto my stomach, pulled a torch from my rucksack and peered inside.

— Thomas Rees

— Image Credit: Flikr/Carlos Adampol Galindo

This article was originally published on flightcentre.co.uk

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