Review: Alister Spence Quartet/kit Downes And Robert Landfermann Face Off At The Vortex

International jazz collaborations are a lot like family holidays. They’re a nice idea in theory, but the practicalities can be a bit of a nightmare. How do you rehearse when you live on different continents and the time lag on Skype makes everything sound like Sun Ra’s greatest hits?

If last night’s double bill at the Vortex was anything to go by, you squeeze in a practice an hour before the gig or you don’t bother, you just cross your fingers and listen like buggery. For pianist Kit Downes and German bassist Robert Landfermann it all worked out. Their opening set was a thing of beauty, full of intriguing musical narratives that whispered “follow me” and set off through sunlit fields, bright with Copland-esque modality, and dark Teutonic forests plucked from the folklore of The Brothers Grimm.

Landfermann is the bassist with the Pablo Held Trio whose set at the Gateshead International Jazz Festival was one of my gigs of 2014. Back then his fragile harmonics and guttural bow scrapes had me transfixed and there were more of them here. Pushing his bass away from him then holding it close, he conjured delicate pedal points, shrieks and sounds like creaking timbers as Downes pirouetted and twirled. From the shimmering chords that announced the arrival of ‘Waira’, to the jagged theme of ‘Windstille’ and the lowing bass notes that brought ‘Eno’ to a close, the duo seemed to dance around one another, playing with grace and sensitivity.

At times, there was a dance-like synchronicity to the minimalist motifs and silvery melodies played by experimental Australian pianist Alister Spence and his quartet. Yet, on the whole, they seemed less at ease. Marred by miscommunication, ‘Radium’ was a tentative opener – four dancers repeatedly treading on one another’s toes. Scottish saxophonist Raymond MacDonald was clearly finding the sight reading a headache, but he raised his game on ‘Felt’, circular breathing through a boiling, Brötzmann-like soprano feature with his cheeks bulging and the sweat beading on his brow.

‘Brave Ghost’ was more confident and brought the best out of Norwegian drummer Dag Magnus Narvesen who laid into his cymbals while Spence pounded out a deliciously sour mash of chords. Narvesen was similarly impressive on ‘Seventh Song’, preparing his snare drum with cloths, wood blocks and coffee mugs, which produced insect-like chirrups. It was here that Spence came alive too, layering in mesmeric samples of his Australian trio, which had a ghostly, faded quality that ramped up the atmosphere.

‘Another October’, from Spence album Fit, was a highlight thanks to Joe Williamson who took the melody and worked in a whispered bass feature, his lips pursed throughout. But a brace of McDonald compositions were less consistent. ‘A Big Toe’ was a deliberately corny, ‘my first jazz gig’ type number crossed with an agro shred fest that sounded more fun to play than it was to listen to. ‘If You Really Want To Hear About It’ was better and the fragile unison vocals at the end were surprisingly effective.

Still, it was the music of Downes and Landfermann that stayed with me after the gig. In the hurriedly rehearsed, international jazz collaboration lottery, it was their ears that won the day and their numbers that came up.

– Thomas Rees

Review: Alice Russell, Jazz Café

Review: Alice Russell, Jazz Café

You know what really grinds my gears? Bands that only have one. One gear, one level of intensity. For a good hour of last night’s set, diminutive diva Alice Russell, the voice behind countless Quantic hits and that cover of “Seven Nation Army” that no one would shut up about back in 2005, was guilty of just that. She was flatlining at mid-intensity, lost in the no man’s land between tension and release and it was a shame, because everything else about her set, the first of two sold out shows at Camden’s Jazz Café, was hard to fault.

For starters, Russell’s voice is the real deal. It’s powerful, husky and taut, so good that it stops you in your tracks. Her setlist was varied and well judged, dominated by songs from 2013 release To Dust, but peppered with Pot Of Gold’s funky, old-school groovers. Her chat was warm and reassuringly rowdy and her band were Tower of Power tight. Special mention has to go Mike Simmons, a burly, roadie lookalike who turned out to be an all-singing, all-dancing, violin-, mandolin- and cowbell-playing demigod.

But though you wouldn’t have known it from the roar of the crowd, or the reaction of three ‘have a go heroes’ who broke out the sustained unision bellows when an encore didn’t seem forthcoming, Russell’s set never really caught fire.

“Let Us Be Loving”, with its juddering intro and driving groove was a step in the right direction. So was a backbeat heavy rendition of “Hard and Strong” and a whip through “To Dust”, which saw the singer bend and stretch her notes to breaking point. Better still were the encores; a version of the Colombian-inspired “I’d Cry”, with some bolero-esque violin work from Simmons, and a show-stopping take on “Got The Hunger” that had Russell writhing about on stage and growling into the mic.

But by then, it was too little too late. Too late to make up for the all slow ones that hadn’t stayed slow for long and the belters that never reached fever pitch. There’s no doubting Russell’s talent or the steely professionalism of her band, but this was too much about polish and not nearly enough about drama.

–Thomas Rees

– Photo by JMJournet/Wikicommons

This article was originally published on theartsdesk.com 

Meeting AA Gill

He’s the UK’s most notorious restaurant critic and a venerated travel writer. He’s also one of my heroes. Or, at least, he was…

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People look at me strangely when I tell them I like AA Gill. My housemate brought me to account when she found a copy of Previous Convictions lying on the table and I instantly regretted bringing him up over a pint of mild with my uncle in a tired old pub in County Conwy. “AA Gill! No, he doesn’t have anything to say about the Welsh does he?” Actually he called them ‘loquacious, dissemblers, immoral liars, stunted, bigoted, dark, ugly, pugnacious little trolls’. Oh right, you were being sarcastic.

It’s not a rose tinted hero worship. I freely admit that he’s an obnoxious self-publicist. I know about the Press Complaints Commission investigations and the accusations of racism, misogyny and homophobia, but I can’t help myself. His prose is just too good.

I’m pretty sure it’s not just me. He’s reported to be the most highly paid columnist in the UK and the dust jackets of his books like to claim he’s one of the most widely read in Britain. But if you’re a fan, do yourself a favour: don’t meet him. I did, and part of me wishes I hadn’t.

It was at a talk at the Idler Academy in West London, a bookshop full of luvvy luvvy types with dishevelled hair and ill-fitting moleskin trousers. We drank Hendrick’s gin and tonics out of patterned teacups and then moved down the road to St Stephen’s Church to hear Gill in conversation with John Mitchinson, inventor of QI.

Gill offered various contradictory opinions about the nature and purpose of criticism, sidestepped a question about the moral implications of writing for Murdoch’s Sunday Times, and forgot things – an impressive number of things for someone who once claimed, in an article about Glastonbury, that he doesn’t make notes and that his memory has never let him down.

But as I joined the queue for the book signing, that wasn’t what was bothering me. It wasn’t his appearance (he’s as formidably well-dressed as everyone says he is) or the fact that he’s shorter and more vulnerable-looking than you’d expect. It’s not that he’s an ogre. Quite the opposite. When I asked him if he had any tips for young writers he looked at me with fatherly concern and he thanked me profusely when I recommended places for him to visit on a trip to Bogotá. It’s his manner and his voice that’s the problem. They just don’t fit.

On paper Gill is a voice of authority. He’s irreverent and dryly humorous, a master of the put down and the send up, of crude but ingenious innuendo and biting satire. He’s erudite and fiercely intelligent with his observations, yet he still sounds like a man of the people, as well versed in popular culture as he is in ancient history and contemporary art. He can be tender (read his pieces on fatherhood), but it’s rare for him to be excessively sentimental. More often than not he sounds worldly and at times a little jaded. His travel pieces read like the work of a man who’s seen it all and, every so often, like the internal monologue of a hatchet-wielding cynic.

But Gill in person is none of those things. He’s a chirpy, hyperactive caricature, full of “darling”s and theatrical bluster; a man fundamentally lacking in gravitas. He talks too much for someone whose job it is to watch and to listen and he does so in a reedy tenor that’s hammy and affectedly posh. It’s not the voice I had in my head as I read his withering attacks on the idiocy of golf or the trashy, eye-watering glitz and bariatric excess of Las Vegas. It’s a drastic mismatch.

None of this would matter if his writing still sounded the same, but it doesn’t. Now that I’ve met him there’s a new voice in my head, not the voice of a sharp tongued observer, a dealer in universal truths and shrewd insights, but that of a pantomime villain. It’s Gill’s real voice and it makes his prose sound kitsch and over the top. His judgements seem less weighty and the smutty innuendo reads less like a man dragging lofty, joyless subjects down into the mud and more like the work of a sniggering school boy. He’s still head and shoulders above most other journalists, but I think it might be time to find a new literary hero. To find one and to avoid meeting them at all costs.

– Thomas Rees

Postscript: Suffice to say I’ve changed my mind somewhat since writing this. Here’s my tribute to Gill, following his death in 2016.

Review: Laura Jurd’s Human Spirit

It’s just over two years since a 21-year-old Laura Jurd released Landing Ground, her unnervingly assured debut album. Human Spirit is the follow up, due for release on 19 January and now touring the UK. On the evidence of Wednesday night’s launch at the Forge, it’s a worthy successor – every bit as impressive as the young trumpeter’s first outing, but markedly different.

The strings have been ditched in favour of a brass heavy front line, comprising Jurd, trumpeter Chris Batchelor and trombonist Colm O’Hara, while a monster of a bass saxophone takes care of the low end – with help from Mick Foster, its bearded keeper. The rest of the group – vocalist Lauren Kinsella,guitarist Alex Roth and drummer Corrie Dick – are Jurd’s bandmates from art rock/improv group Blue-Eyed Hawk and their inclusion is telling.

In ‘Opening Sequence’, the rich harmonies and folksy trumpet lines of Landing Ground made a return, but it wasn’t long before we were in Blue-Eyed Hawk territory. ‘She Knew Him’ saw Foster drop the first of many rumbling bass grooves as Jurd launched into a bluesy solo, heavy on the wah-wah pedal, and Roth kicked his guitar into overdrive. One of the highlights of the set, ‘Brighter Days’ juxtaposed reeling melody lines with a ponderous brass chorale, shifting between a series of complex grooves before descending into chaos.

‘Pirates’ brought further anarchy, plus a story book vocal narrative set to a reggae backbeat, and there was even more going on in the album’s title track. It opened with a spidery guitar riff and a slow moving verse. From there a grunge-rock chorus launched a stinger of a solo from Chris Batchelor followed by a funk groove, shot through with horn section injections that sounded like gleefully misplaced samples. Just as it was grinding to a halt, Foster and Jurd ushered in a second churning, head-nodder of a bassline and the rest of the band piled back in. The rhythm section rocked out as Kinsella whooped and trilled and Batchelor reached for his plunger mute to give the audience the full Goldfinger.

Sudden shifts between light and dark became the order of the day, and ‘More Than Just A Fairy Tale’ brought yet another when its gently rolling theme was derailed by a slide-shredding O’Hara trombone solo. Rounding out the set, ‘Closing Sequence’ was both warm and unsettling with a haunting vamp that bled into the texture towards the end.

In its essence Human Spirit is Blue-Eyed Hawk meets Landing Ground with horns. It’s jabberwocky music; a thrilling mish mash of references and styles that makes for a rollercoaster of a live set. If Jurd’s debut was unnervingly accomplished, then Human Spirit is edgy, irreverent and brave. It doesn’t look for approval, it just makes you sit up and listen.

– Thomas Rees

This article was originally published on JazzwiseMagazine.com

Review: Avishai Cohen’s Triveni, The Vortex, Dalston

Chords. They’re overrated. Or at least they ought to know their place. It’s hard to imagine “A Love Supreme” without McCoy Tyner pounding away at the keyboard but that doesn’t mean that chords should be a given. You don’t always want some lumbering ivory contraption or a stick-in-the-mud guitarist weighing you down. Sometimes you want something sleek, agile and just a little bit dangerous. A white-knuckle ride in a stripped-down rally car not a Sunday morning cruise in a Rolls.

Sonny Rollins knew that way back in the Fifties when he started “strolling” with just a bassist and a drummer and it seems that trumpeter Avishai Cohen knows that too, because Triveni are that rally car. They’re the musical equivalent of something powerful but perfectly balanced, something with a roll cage, no carpet and those flimsy racing seats that look as though they’re probably quite uncomfortable.
They’re relaxed, responsive and frighteningly on it. They slip in and out of melodies, slide between abstract time and broken swing and then, just when you think they’re in the depths of free improvisation, that they’ve left the tune far behind, they’ll come together on a groove or a hit and prove you wrong.

Last night, as they made their London debut at The Vortex, it happened time and time again, amidst the moody noir of “Dark Nights, Darker Days”, the title track from their latest release, and the klezmer-tinged rough and tumble of “Safety Land”. The best of Cohen’s originals, it had Yoni Zelnik wrenching at the strings of his bass and saw Nasheet Waits drop out, relish the silence and then barge his way back in with stuttering, parched snare drum work and the odd brutal swipe at his crash cymbal. For the record, he has a handshake like a vice. Best to stay on his good side.

It’s clear that Triveni know a thing or two about flexible, calculated anarchy, but don’t think that they’re all about being modern and edgy. They opened with Don Cherry’s “Art Deco”, closed with Frank Foster’s “Shiny Stockings” and returned for Dizzy’s “Woody’n You” when the crowd demanded an encore. Cohen dedicated a tune to Ornette Coleman (“One Man’s Idea”) and he paid tribute to both Mingus and Strayhorn with a rendition of “Lush Life” and an unpredictable account of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” delivered in a smoky bar-room whisper.

To say that he’s well-versed in jazz tradition would be an understatement, and amongst the careering lines, bends, shakes and rasping, flutter-tongued holds that made up his solos, there were plenty of quotes to watch out for. Snippets from classics including “The Lady Is a Tramp” and “Manteca” all reared their heads and there were unmistakable references to great trumpet players, too. On “Art Deco”, Cohen’s tight, breathy tone evoked Chet Baker and lent the tune a vintage, “old record” feel. His playing on the smouldering “October 25th” had a touch of Wynton Marsalis swagger, while his cutting staccato and elastic phrasing recalled the virtuosity of Clifford Brown.

All in all, there wasn’t a great deal that Cohen and Triveni didn’t have under their belts and it certainly didn’t feel as if there was anything missing. In fact, they might just put you off chords for good.

– Thomas Rees

– Photo by Philippe Levy

This article was originally published on theartsdesk.com

Review: Enlightenment Ensemble Evoke The Spirit Of A Love Supreme At Union Chapel

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They say that fortune favours the brave, and right now in jazz circles they don’t come much braver than flautist Roland Sutherland. Let’s keep things in perspective. To my knowledge, he hasn’t taken a bullet for Sonny Rollins or waltzed through a North Korean minefield to spread the word about Jacob Collier. But, he has had a crack at John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, one of the most revered albums in the history of jazz. Not only that, but he performed it in front of a sell-out Union Chapel crowd 50 years to the day since it was recorded at the Van Gelder Studio in New Jersey.

In my book, that deserves respect. Even if the whole thing had come crashing down around him and had veered towards lacklustre, cheap and nasty, everything for a pound imitation, he should still have got a pat on the back, a gold star for effort and a voucher towards a five star police protection programme. But fortunately it didn’t come to that, because, not only is Sutherland brave, he’s also a man of impeccable taste and formidable musical ability.

If anything, his re-envisioning of the legendary saxophonist’s magnum opus, arranged for the 15-piece Enlightenment Ensemble, went the other way and for the first ten minutes it was hard to find anything resembling A Love Supreme amidst the thrumming of Senegalese kora and Indian percussion. Still, there was plenty to enjoy in the tribal vocals and galloping rhythms of the bata drummers, the treasure trove of exotic instruments on stage and the long white robes worn by the performers (black embroidered with gold in the case of xylosynth player and MD Orphy Robinson).

Nor was it long before Coltrane’s music began to emerge. At first there were just glimpses of it, allusions to the familiar four-note riff from ‘Acknowledgement’ in Nikki Yeoh’s piano and in the horns. But, when a slinky reworking of ‘Resolution’ broke through some furious Mark Mondesir cymbal work, the references began to come thick and fast.

Intricate, percussion-heavy cross-rhythms came to recall the dexterity of Elvin Jones. Yeoh’s pounding block chords and side-stepping motifs were the real McCoy Tyner. Yaron Stavi’s pedal-to-the-metal swing and boozy, slide guitar-like bass feature channelled Jimmy Garrison and there was spirituality in the recitations of vocalists Juwon Ogungbe and Cleveland Watkiss, who delivered passages of Coltrane’s psalm from their perch in the heavy stone pulpit.

Sutherland’s manipulations of melodies sometimes rendered them a little less intense and a little more carefree than the originals but there was more than enough anguish in the solos to compensate. Nostrils flaring, Steve Williamson (above) wrestled with his tenor, Pat Thomas’ keyboard yelped and Shabaka Hutchings’ bass clarinet sobbed and wailed.

By the end, as the lights went out and the cheers went up, most of the band and half the audience looked like they’d been through the mill. But so they should. A Love Supreme is about an arduous spiritual journey, not some happy clappy walk in the park. It’s about effort, frustration and faith learnt the hard way. It’s an offering of thanks by a recovered heroin addict and a reassessment of just how precious life is. Sutherland and the Enlightenment Ensemble understand that. Better still, they’re brave enough to play like it.

– Thomas Rees

– Photo by Roger Thomas

This article was originally published on JazzwiseMagazine.com

 

Review: Nat Birchall Quartet, Leafcutter John And Andreas Schaerer Make For An Irresistible Jazz In The Round

Less than 24 hours after the finale of this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival you would have thought that live jazz would have been the last thing on most Londoners’ minds. But a ticket to Jazz In The Round, a monthly event held at the Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone and hosted by Jazz on 3’s Jez Nelson, is a difficult thing to resist.

Informally dubbed the Jazz In The Round Christmas Party but mercifully free from festive repertoire, this month’s triple bill opened with a set from Swiss vocalist Andreas Schaerer who performed to a packed house. Schaerer is part standup comedian, part beatboxer and part singer and his immaculately paced introductory spiel and vocal trickery had the audience in fits of giggles from the start. (I won’t spoil it by telling you why). Those giggles turned to murmurs of disbelief in the following number as he sang a simple township melody while beatboxing over the top, throwing in an assortment of effects that ranged from trumpet and rattle noises to the sound of a squash ball ricocheting around the room. A ‘stereo’ rendition of Sonny Rollins’ ‘Oleo’ sung across two microphones came next and then it was time for some participatory drones from the audience while Schaerer added a haunting near-eastern melody and hammed up his role as conductor.

Just as engaging was an appearance from Polar Bear electronicist Leafcutter John (pictured above) who arrived armed with a sparkler, a candle, two bike lights, a camera phone and a lighter, with which to conjure fizzing, ambient soundscapes from a perspex box full of light sensitive electronics. By altering the settings on his painstakingly pre-programmed laptop and varying the intensity and the position of the lights, he produced a mesmerising array of sounds, layering pitch bends and distorted vocals over muffled drumbeats and trembling washes of church organ before handing things over to headliner Nat Birchall (pictured top).

Performing alongside pianist Adam Fairhall, bassist Michael Bardon, drummer Johnny Hunter and an animated, barefoot Corey Mwamba on vibraphone, the Manchester-based saxophonist offered up a series of impassioned, musical prayers set against smouldering modal backdrops. Among the highlights was a unnamed track from the group’s forthcoming album, which floated an imploring sax melody over throbbing bass and punchy piano and vibes.

The saxophonist makes no secret of his love for John Coltrane and, though his soprano sound (at times uncannily like that of a cor anglais) is very much his own, both his tenor playing and his compositional style owe a lot to the great man. A rendition of Bill Lee’s ‘John Coltrane’ was a fitting tribute, opening with gravely piano and bass before launching a solo for Birchall that merged seamlessly with the opening line of a blistering Mwamba vibes feature. Closing with the title track from their 2011 release Sacred Dimension, the group brought the house down. Jazz festival or no jazz festival, there’s always room for more good music.

– Thomas Rees

– Photos by Steven Cropper

Jazz In The Round returns on 26 January 2015 – for more info go to www.thecockpit.org.uk

This article was originally published on jazzwisemagazine.com

Review: Jaga Jazzist, Union Chapel

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Expectations can be dangerous when it comes to live music, but sometimes managing them is easier said than done. Go and see a band like Jaga Jazzist, a genre-crossing collective of Norwegian multi-instrumentalists who skyrocketed to fame in 2002 when the BBC named A Livingroom Hush jazz album of the year, and you expect it to be big. Especially when it’s the group’s 20th anniversary tour and you arrive at Union Chapel to find the queue stretching around the block.

As we filed in, I was in rock gig mode, prepared to leave with mild tinnitus, a few new bruises and a stupid grin plastered across my face, but it wasn’t like that at all. Not only were we sat down throughout, in the battered wooden pews beneath the chapel’s cavernous ceiling, it was clear from the support act (30 minutes of polished, rhythmically inventive electronica from Viennese synth maestro Dorian Concept and his trio) that sound levels were going to be on the quiet side of sensible.

On top of all that, Jaga got off to a slow start, arriving on stage in a haze of blue light and opening with a rendition of “Toccata” from 2010 album One-Armed Bandit. Characterised by endlessly swirling synth and directionless vibraphone, it was underwhelming at best and at worst mildly irritating. But as the band found their groove and I prepared myself for a subtler sort of gig, things began to look up.

“Bananfluer Overalt” brought intriguing shifts in colour and intensity along with an introspective clarinet and flute melody that called to mind Gil Evans’ “Sketches of Spain”, before making way for the crackly, broken piano sounds of “Reminders”. One of the highlights of the set, it featured a harmonically sophisticated soprano solo from bandleader Lars Horntveth, an engaging passage of unison vibes and glockenspiel and a tumultuous ending lifted by bellowing trombone.

Just as strong was a nameless new composition that opened with driving bass and drums before collapsing into stuttering electronics. From there a second groove emerged, laying the foundations for heavy guitar riffs, symphonic brass and a scalic synth pattern that swept through the lot. It paved the way for a hard-hitting finish, shot through with synth and drumkit breakdowns, and two euphoric encores, “All I Know Is Tonight” and “Oslo Skyline”. They could still have been louder and more visceral, but I was grinning, and at long last the crowd were on their feet.

– Thomas Rees

This article was originally published on theartsdesk.com

Brilliant Corners: The East London Venue Making Jazz Sound Better

Thomas Rees swings by Dalston’s Brilliant Corners for the second event in their innovative Played Twice series, a new live music night where atmosphere and sound quality are everything and jazz cliché is left at the door

Last week during the EFG London Jazz Festival – as Tomasz Stańko took the stage at the Barbican, Chucho Valdés played to a sell out crowd at Kings Place and John McLaughlin rocked the Royal Festival Hall – a bar on Kingsland High Road held a gig that was every bit as momentous.

It’s a little place called Brilliant Corners, and if you haven’t heard of it that’s because it’s only just started hosting live music. Back in September, the venue put on the first in a series of events called Played Twice, a novel idea for a night that starts off as a record party and ends up as a gig. First there’s a playthrough of a landmark album on Brilliant Corners’ state of the art analogue sound system and then a band made up of top British jazzers reinterpret that recording live in the venue.

“We used to do a thing we called ‘Jazz Night’,” explains Amit Patel (pictured below), owner of Brilliant Corners along with brother Aneesh. “We’d take our speakers and all of the equipment that we had and invite people round to listen to a classic jazz album from start to finish. That was way before this venue, but after the success of doing it we realised that it just works. When we got this place, a friend of a friend knew [trumpeter] Quentin Collins and he was like ‘well you should take it one step further and play live music afterwards’. So we said ‘alright then, fine, we’ll do that’. I think it’s necessary in jazz,” he adds. “There are so many ideas, if you don’t give the audience a chance to hear it again I think a little bit of it is lost.”

With that in mind, the series opened by giving Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz To Come the Played Twice treatment. Collins assembled an all-star quartet featuring trumpeter Byron Wallen, saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, Polar Bear drummer Seb Rochford and bassist Neil Charles and, by all accounts the venue was rammed. It was just as busy last week as I arrived for the second outing, a double play of Wayne Shorter classic Speak No Evil with Collins joining tenorist Tony Kofi, pianist Andrew McCormack, bassist Mark Lewandowski and drummer Enzo Zirilli for the second set.

After a delayed start and a charmingly amateurish introduction from the owners, the lights were dimmed, the kitchen was closed and the metal shutters at the front of the venue came down. “My brother and I think that if you create some kind of ceremony about listening to music it reveals itself better,” said Patel as he removed the record from its sleeve, and he was right.

I’m a child of the 90s, used to shutting out the world with a pair of headphones and listening to albums in fragments, confining them to the background or consuming them on the go. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve sat in the company of friends and listened to an album from start to finish. But for the next 40 minutes I found myself wondering why. As we sat together in the darkness and listened to the opening phrase of ‘Witch Hunt’ blossom out of the speakers, there was something intoxicating about the atmosphere, about the purr of the sleek silver turntable and the crackle and pop of the record.

It was only then that I understood why people are so fanatical about vinyl. It has a warmth and a softness that you don’t get with CD. It wraps the music up in cotton wool and it was perfectly suited to an album like Speak No Evil, emphasising the colour of Hancock’s harmonies, rounding out the harshness of Hubbard’s upper register and adding mellow undertones to the sound of Shorter’s sax. Brilliant Corners’ enviable sound system helps (you can find the full specs here if that’s your thing), and I’m sure the team could talk your ear off about modified tone arms and copper wiring if you wanted them to.

But, refreshingly, there was nothing edgy or try hard about the event and when I asked if they were consciously tapping into the recent vinyl renaissance Patel cut me short. “We’re not consciously tapping into anything,” he said. “We just recognise that sonically it’s much better if you get a really good [vinyl] pressing, a really good needle, a really good amplifier and a really good set of speakers. We don’t do it to be trendy or fashionable.”

They take the same pretension-free approach to the music, and Patel was keen to tell me that he doesn’t “know shit about jazz”, pointing to my notebook and insisting I write it down. He and his brother are just amateur enthusiasts, he maintains, “the most forward thinking” of their friends.

It’s this relaxed approach, along with the deliberate omission of a certain four letter word from most the marketing material, which Patel attributes to the night’s success. “We pushed [the first event] hard because we believe in jazz and we think it’s sad the way it’s not really celebrated, but we did it in a way that’s not ‘jazzy’, so write that in your book,” he says with a smile. “We didn’t adhere to all those jazz clichés which put off so many people. Even the word jazz, it’s like ‘argh, God, jazz’.

“My brother works at a music law firm, but they’re like ‘hey, Aneesh. How’s your jazz bar going’,” he says, putting on a corny American accent. They make fun of him a little bit because jazz isn’t considered to be cool and it is cool. It’s the highest form of art. It’s just a matter of presentation. People think ‘I’m not clever enough for jazz’, but if you let yourself be disarmed and be primal and let it go straight in then it all just makes sense.”

He may well be on to something. The crowd at the Wayne Shorter event certainly didn’t look like your typical jazz audience. Most of them were fresh faced East Londoners who were intrigued by the concept of Played Twice but knew little about the music itself. Yet after the playthrough they were hooked, and when Patel led an impromptu, jargon-free discussion about the importance of Speak No Evil and the challenges of recreating it, they seemed more than happy chiming in.

We talked about the album’s historical context (it was recorded in December 1964, the same month as Coltrane’s A Love Supreme) and about Shorter’s use of harmony, which was cutting edge for the time. Collins highlighted the strength of the ensemble playing (Shorter appeared alongside Freddie Hubbard in the horn section of the Jazz Messengers and had just joined the Miles Davis Quintet with Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter) and then, with the musicians doing their best not to look daunted, it was time to find out if they could do the album justice.

From the flaring lines of ‘Witch Hunt’ to the easy swing of the title track and the tranquility of ‘Infant Eyes’, everything was as it should be – faithful to the original but full of personality. Weaving in bluesy phrases and touches of modern harmony, Kofi used his solos to riff on Shorter’s melodies, while Collins (above) whipped up the crowd with his stinging high register. McCormack (whose solo on ‘Dance Cadaverous’ was one of the highlights of the set) put his stamp on the performance with stacked harmonies and twisting lines which he embellished with gracenotes and a touch of Hancock-style tremolo. Phrasing with the soloists and loosening things up with gutsy cymbal work, Zirilli played a storm, while Lewandowski had Carter’s sauntering style down to a T.

As ‘Wild Flower’ came to an energetic close, I’m sure I wasn’t the only person in the room wishing there were more nights like this. Cheers and whistles broke into rapturous applause and the players seemed touched by the reception. Kofi thanked the audience for being so attentive and Collins took a moment to praise the venue. “I’m sure we all got more out of that one playthrough than we did from 50 listens on our headphones or in our cars,” he said. “Keep supporting the night. It’s about remembering how to listen to music.”

– Thomas Rees

Played Twice returns on 19 December with Keith Jarrett’s My Song feat. Andrew McCormack (piano), Julian Siegel (saxophone), Sam Lasserson (bass) and James Maddren (drums). Nathaniel Facey will lead a performance of Coltrane’s Sound in February, with performances of Monk’s Brilliant Corners and Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda also planned for early 2015.

For more info go to brilliantcornerslondon.co.uk – photos by Miguel Echeverria

 

This article was originally published on jazzwisemagazine.com

Review: Mehliana + Sons Of Kemet, EFG London Jazz Festival 2013

Heads are nodding in the row in front as a screech of controlled feedback and a layer of treble, like the beam of search light, fills the room. You can feel the bass-drum in your chest, like distant mortar fire, right before the snare snaps your head back and the stuttering fills and bewildering cross-rhythms leave you drowning in a sea of electronic noise.

The closest you’ll get to clubbing in Barbican Hall, last night’s gig featured two acts out on the fringes of jazz. An opening set from Mehliana, a collaboration between legendary pianist and composer Brad Mehldau, and drummer Mark Guiliana, known for his work with Wayne Krantz and Gretchen Parlato, was a hard-hitting blend of improvisation, electronica and drum and bass. On piano, Fender Rhodes and an arsenal of vintage synthesisers, Mehldau unleashed arpeggiated riffs, twisting, gospel-inspired lines and electronic soundscapes. His eyes screwed shut in concentration, Guiliana responded with driving grooves, risking it all on drum breaks of astonishing precision and rhythmic complexity.

In the second half, young London-based quartet, Sons of Kemet, brought raw energy to a stage wreathed in smoke. Tuba player Oren Marshall pounded out bass-lines amidst the clattering fills of the band’s two drummers, Seb Rochford and Tom Skinner. Showcasing his extended technique, Marshall added effects, with sounds like scratching on vinyl and rumbling bass notes that evoked Mehldau’s synths.

“Godfather”, one of two clarinet features for reeds player Shabaka Hutchings provided a welcome change of pace. Its gentle melody, inspired by “Ethio-jazz”, calmed the hall before the band exploded into a finale, tinged with rock and high-stepping reggae.

Neither group were flawless. Mehliana’s set, in particular, lacked variety and saw attentions wandering by the end. But, for pushing the boundaries and capturing the atmosphere of a sweat-soaked underground club in the polite confines of a concert hall, both acts should be commended.

– Thomas Rees

This article was originally published on jazzwisemagazine.com