Beginner’s Guide to Free Jazz for Jazz Standard

A free jazz primer for the confused and horrified

Fire in a petshop. Squeaky gate. Few genres of music get more abuse than free jazz – the disparaging nicknames say it all.

It’s not difficult to see why. Free music can feel like an assault on the senses and if you’re coming to it cold it can be baffling and impenetrable. Even jazz legend Miles Davis was unimpressed the first time he heard it, famously saying that sax player Ornette Coleman, the inventor of free jazz, was “all screwed up inside”.

But people are often hostile to things that are different and new. Miles soon got onboard and went on to record numerous free tracks of his own and Coleman was hailed as one of the true great innovators in jazz when he died this time last year. Free jazz haters are missing out on some genuinely brilliant and uniquely expressive music so don’t be one of them. Follow these seven tips and set yourself free.

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— Thomas Rees

— Photo: The Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Joseph Jarman

Sons Of Kemet, Neil Cowley Trio And Dylan Howe Play Up A Storm At Canary Wharf Jazz Festival

Musicians have always benefitted from the patronage of the wealthy, but though it’s now in its ninth year, there’s still something odd about a jazz festival in Canary Wharf. It’s hard to imagine two more contrasting worlds than those of jazz and high finance and you’d think this fiercely ordered business hub would take umbrage against a bunch of scruffy, free-spirited musos traipsing through.

Yet it all works rather well and the arts and events wing of the Canary Wharf Group proves itself a generous and accommodating host – the philanthropic heart of gold behind all that glass and steel. For starters the whole weekend is free; they’ve splashed out on a series of giant video screens to relay the on-stage action around Canada Square Park; and when I arrive on Friday night, in the driving rain, there’s a gaggle of dripping wet stewards handing out ponchos. It’s down to Bristol-based jazz-rock band The Rawness to start the show and, to their credit, they play their hearts across some funked-up originals, despite performing to a crowd of around 30 people cowering beneath umbrellas.

Headlining the opening night are Sons of Kemet (pictured top) who banish the rain altogether with tracks from forthcoming album Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do. It’s an inspiring set, full of heavy dub grooves, swaggering, roar-throated sax lines and jolting drum beats, with Arabic and Ethiopian notes to counterpoint the strong Caribbean flavour. Theon Cross gets the crowd going with a thunderous tuba breakdown, complete with yelping altissimo whoops, and Shabaka Hutchings (below) riffs in return, spinning out some arrestingly fragile melodies – notes of calm amidst the wonderfully chaotic, bull-in-a-china-shop drum solos of Seb Rochford and Tom Skinner. The four musicians give it their all and by the end, spurred on by the roar of the small but dedicated crowd, they’re wetter than we are – drenched in sweat.


The rest of the weekend is dry, the stewards are handing out plastic picnic rugs and the park is packed. It’s a varied crowd – families, friends of all ages, a few barefoot hippies and a sprinkling of the formidably well-heeled – and we get a varied programme to match. Some of it ispretty involved and one of Sunday’s highlights is an appearance from trumpeter Yazz Ahmed and her Family Hafla Band, followed by an atmospheric set of Bowie instrumentals from drummer Dylan Howe’s Subterraneans. As archive footage of goose-stepping soldiers, murky street scenes and flickering crowds plays out on the big screens, Howe transports us to 1970s Berlin. The music is engrossing and much of it is sunk in shadowy intrigue, but there are bright lights and bold colours too, with glinting solos from pianist Ross Stanley and unison melodies that see James Allsopp’s saxophone blending with Steve Lodder’s fizzing, acid-trip synth to great effect.

Also on the bill are a few party bands and, as private jets skirt the surrounding skyscrapers bound for London City Airport, Afrobeat warriors The Fontanelles take the stage. Formerly the band for FELA! at the National Theatre, a musical about the life of Nigerian icon Fela Kuti, they’re polished and punchy and they get the crowd dancing.

There’s more dancing when Venezuelan timbales player Edwin Sanz and his San Agustin Salsa Orchestra steam on, with charismatic, high kicking frontmen and keys player Alex Wilson pounding out the montunos. They’re a lot of fun but it’s a surreal experience and thoroughly disorienting, particularly when they launch into salsa versions of pop classics ‘Ain’t Nobody’ and ‘Higher Love’ and when Brit rapper Jayel comes on for the finale, amidst furious percussion breaks, beatboxing and screaming lead trumpet.

Just as spectacular are the Neil Cowley Trio. Backlit by the eerie blue glow of the Barclays and KPMG buildings, they bring the festival to a close with a characteristically RSI-inducing set of minimalist grooves and thrashing, rock climaxes that go down a storm. “It’s great to be here at Canary Wharf,” the pianist says with a laugh, “… a place I so rarely come.” I’d be willing to bet that’s the last time you’ll see a jazz musician in Canada Square Park, at least until they allow us all back for the festival’s 10th anniversary next year.

– Thomas Rees @ThomasNRees

– Photos by Nunzio Prenna

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Local Acts Light Up The 20th Manchester Jazz Festival

Usually when a festival the size of Manchester reaches a major milestone they call in the cavalry – jazz titans like the Marsalis Brothers, Charles Lloyd or Chick Corea come to take care of the fireworks and help put up the bunting and what you get is a programme full of international heavy hitters. But that’s not really the point of MJF and never has been.

This festival is less about bringing the world to Manchester and more about showcasing the best that the North West has to offer – which is saying a great deal. This is a city with a proud musical tradition after all – the home of Chetham’s and the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM), the Hallé Orchestra and the BBC Phil. It’s the parade ground of several of the UK’s most flawlessly twee brass bands and the indie hub that gave us Oasis, Elbow and The Smiths (which just about makes up for the Bee Gees).

Manchester’s jazz scene is one of enviable strength and depth and MJF’s programme has always been heavy on local bands with a view to flaunting and nurturing the city’s musical output. Though there were a smattering of international jazz stars on this year’s bill their sets certainly weren’t the highlights – at least during my visit, on the final weekend of the festival’s 10-day run.

I’m a huge fan of Robert Glasper. His duo performance with fellow Houstonian Jason Moran was one of the standout gigs at last year’s London Jazz Festival and I was privileged enough to watch his Experiment band play a blinder at the Sage Gateshead in 2013. His trademark blend of jazz, hip hop and R&B is one of the defining sounds of the past few years, one that has spawned legions of imitators and turned new audiences on to the tradition. Yet I found his MJF set, in front of a sell-out crowd at the RNCM, hard going.

The pianist took to the stage with his recently reformed trio of bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Damion Reid and the three men displayed impressive interactive powers across a series of tracks from latest album Covered, cut with Prince’s “Sign O’ The Times” and extended quotes from “Afro Blue” and “Till It’s Done (Tutu)”, by neo-soul pioneer D’Angelo. But on the whole the gig felt aimless and self-indulgent. Bursts of solo piano from Glasper lacked direction and the grooves were all on one level – laid back and lethargic. They would have made perfectly pleasant R&B beats, with a vocalist to add interest, and I wouldn’t have minded a bit if they’d been on the playlist at a house party, but as material for a sit down concert they left a lot to be desired.

Sunday’s set of ethereal soundscapes and indie pop-inspired originals from hotly-tipped French trumpeter Airelle Besson, winner of the Django Reinhardt Prize and this year’s French Jazz Musician of the Year, was also a little disappointing. Besson’s quartet played well enough, with vocalist Isabel Sorling contributing arcing lines that glowed like moon beams thanks to some subtle electronic enhancement. But the writing felt cluttered and the group’s strategy of allowing tracks to evolve organically (though perfectly sound if properly handled) made for a lot of wandering moments.

Gorka Benítez, a tenor player and flautist from the Basque Country representing Spain on behalf of the Manchester branch of the Instituto Cervantes, gave us an inspiring set full of Iberian flair and forays into free jazz that saved the away team’s blushes. But it was the local bands, and those with a local connection, who ensured that this anniversary went off with a bang.

I have my reservations about GoGo Penguin’s brand of jazz-inflected, acoustic dance music, which can be formulaic at times, but it’s hard not to be swept along by the energy and there was no doubting that the trio played up a storm, headlining the Thwaites Festival Pavilion on Friday night with tracks from v2.0 and their forthcoming debut for Blue Note. There’s a primal quality to their melodies. Like a handprint on the wall of a cave, they awaken something within you and they get your pulse racing. The crowd was clearly delighted to see them back on home turf and greeted them with a thunderous roar.


Just as engrossing was the premiere of Evolution: Seeds and Streams, by Mancunian pianist John Ellis(above),who headlined the first Manchester Jazz Festival back in 1996. Part of the MJF Originals series of new commissions, it was a piece of gently-unfolding, understated beauty – drifting in a world of its own, somewhere between chamber music, jazz and ambient art rock. There were yawning, richly-voiced horn lines; tinkling kora grooves; pointillist, pizzicato strings; snatches of sampled bird song and whispered vocal sounds. Ellis added bulging sci fi synth lines and shivering piano commentaries played on an old upright that sounded as though it had been knocked about a little over the years. The insinuations of honky tonk and the squeak of the pedals only added to the surreal quality of the atmosphere.

The Neo-Gothic splendour of Manchester’s town hall was an inspired choice of setting and an animated backdrop by Antony Barkworth-Knight, full of arresting visuals, was the perfect complement to the music. There were shots of water that ran as thick as oil, muted colours bleeding into one another, stylised flocks of birds and a roving eye. Best of all were a series of hands over which the camera lingered, searching the contours of the palm and the topography of the knuckles, finding beauty in the mundane.

St Anne’s church, the setting for a graceful and wonderfully fluid duo performance from Salford-born guitarist Mike Walker and Chetham’s alumnus Gwilym Simcock (below), was similarly well chosen – particularly as the pair opened with an extract from Bach’s St Matthew Passion. As was the Central Library’s circular reading room, its domed ceiling reverberating with the lilting melodies of trumpeter Neil Yates’ whisper soft Surroundings suite, originally commissioned in 2010 and pared down for a quartet completed by saxophonists Iain Ballamy and Tori Freestone with pianist Les Chisnall.

Walker Sym

As well as demonstrating just how many of the British jazz establishment have ties to the North West, MJF does an excellent job of promoting lesser known acts from the region and there were a host of promising newcomers rubbing shoulders with the local boys and girls done good. The easy-going grooves and swaggering basslines of Afrika Jazz, a trio led by Congolese pianist and Birmingham Conservatoire student Tshepe Tshepela, ensured a laid back start to Friday’s programme and a performance from the Quarry Hillbillies proved an unexpected highlight. See a name like that and you fear the worst but don’t let it put you off. So called because they all teach at Leeds College of Music in Quarry Hill, the quintet take their playing seriously. Their set of contemporary, European jazz originals in the tradition of Kenny Wheeler and John Taylor was flawlessly polished, with plenty of inspiring improvised moments played out across merry-go-round chord sequences – the kind that swing you back to the top and feel like a dream to solo over. Once you’re on you never want to get off.

Drummer Jim Molyneux’s horn-heavy, Snarky Puppy-esque Glowrogues were another exciting discovery and a set of grungy, EWI-led jazz prog from young Leeds band, Stretch Trio (pictured top of page) was equally strong. Both groups would benefit from tightening up a few of their compositions, distilling them down to their essentials, but both have bags of promise and Glowrogues in particular have some killer hooks – choruses that make you want to throw your head back and shout “Choon!” They were on stage again for the festival’s after party at Northern Quartet club Band on the Wall, where they shared the bill with Kalakuta, a group of RNCM students and alumni whose set of high energy Afro Beat was similarly outstanding.

Walking back along Tib Street and through the city centre that night, past boarded-up boozers and livelier ones done out in red brick and glazed tile, I was in no doubt that I’d seen Manchester at its best and it hardly seemed to matter that the weekend’s overseas guests hadn’t lived up to their billings. Homegrown talent provided all of the fireworks this superb twentieth anniversary celebration needed.

– Thomas Rees @ThomasNRees

– Photos by Weiting Huang and Peter Woodman

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Review: Jason Moran, Justin Kauflin And D’Angelo Shine At Montreux Jazz Festival

Thomas Rees is swept away by glamour, history and stand out performances from Jason Moran, Avishai Cohen, Justin Kauflin, Lorenz Kellhuber, and D’Angelo’s band of jazz heavyweights at this year’s Montreux Jazz Festival

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There’s something otherworldly about Montreux. You feel it as soon as you arrive, skirting the shore of Lake Geneva on the train, passing fields of sunflowers and terraces of emerald green vines. There’s a celestial quality to the setting. The snow capped sweep of the alps frames the horizon and the water is as hazy and blue as a gas flame, at times scarcely distinguishable from the sky.

It’s my second year but I’m still giddy with the glamour of it all, the grand old hotels with their wrought iron balconies and canary yellow awnings, the palm trees, and the belle epoch paddle steamers on the lake that announce their arrival with a nostalgic whistle.

The tagline ‘Montreux Riviera’ is bang on. This feels more like the south of France than Switzerland and there’s enough history and romance associated with Montreux to give the Riviera proper a run for its money – not to mention plenty of yachts. Lord Byron used to spend his summers nearby and you’re just an hour’s lazy lakeside stroll from Château de Chillon, a storybook castle that inspired one of his most celebrated works.

That’s before you even get to the festival, which has a mythology and lore of its own. Everyone you can think of has played here and everyone I talk to, from pianist Jason Moran and Israeli bassist Avishai Cohen to Quincy Jones, a long-time friend of Montreux and the man responsible for landing some of its biggest acts, is full of it – raving about the atmosphere or, in Quincy’s case, reminiscing about the time he tried to persuade Aretha Franklin to come over despite her fear of flying. He and festival founder Claude Nobs, who passed away in 2013, came up with an elaborate scheme involving trains, limousines and a cruise ship. Aretha paused a moment before delivering the immortal line “ain’t you guys never heard of the Titanic!”

Franklin did play at Montreux, in 1971, the same year some idiot let off a flare in the middle of a Frank Zappa concert and burnt the Montreux Casino to the ground. Rock band Deep Purple, who were in town to record, saw the blaze from their hotel room and ‘Smoke on the Water’ was born. The ‘Funky Claude’ of the second verse is Nobs himself.

There are hundreds of stories like these and almost as many about Montreux’s expense. It’s true that you could spend a heart-stopping amount of money here. The price of hotel rooms skyrockets during the festival and, even by Swiss standards, the big gigs don’t come cheap. You can run up a sobering drinks bill without even trying, burn through your savings at the street food stalls that line the waterfront or remortgage your house for the privilege of entering the seafood and champagne bar in the lobby, where a nearby stand will do you any kind of sandwhich you want, as long as it’s made with Iberico ham, gravlax, caviar or foie gras.

In what felt like a pathetically tame, middle class re-run of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I took to smuggling bread and hunks of Gruyère from the breakfast buffet at my hotel to save on lunch. After spending six hours in my bag in the blazing sun it was warm to the point of hallucinogenic.

But the expense is only half the story. At times Montreux feels like a festival with a split personality. There are as many studenty types here as there are Swiss bankers with Ferraris double parked outside the Montreux Palace hotel and you could just as easily do this festival on the cheap if you stayed at one of the campsites on the outskirts of town and stocked up on beers at the Co-op. By day the atmosphere is genteel but come midnight, when the waterfront is a blur of neon, the whole place lets its hair down.

It’s also sponsored up to its eyeballs and, while some of those sponsors (Nestle, British American Tobacco Switzerland, Diageo and SOCAR, the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic) are liable to leave a bitter taste in your mouth (or an oily smudge on your conscience), it does mean that there are an astonishing number of free events.

In fact it’s a little overwhelming. I was there for three days, usually crying off around 3am and I felt like I only scratched the surface. I caught a showing of deeply emotional Clark Terry documentary Keep on Keepin’ On hosted by Quincy Jones (Terry’s first ever student), who arrived in a pair of elegant silk pyjamas; workshops and talks led by Avishai Cohen and Jason Moran; an uplifting set from the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir on the Music in the Park stage and jam sessions of frightening quality – all of them free.

Everything that happens here is recorded for the festival’s UNESCO-listed archives, available via terminals in the lobby so, on top of all that, you can while away the time between gigs watching interviews with Stan Getz and sets by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers from the early ‘80s, back when Terence Blanchard and Jean Toussaint were still in short trousers. I never even made it to the edgy, laser-lit Jazz Lab where nubile 20-somethings dance until the sun comes up; to the world music stage, El Mundo; to the jazz boat, the jazz train or to any of the competitions, but I saw more than my fair share of inspiring music.

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Avishai Cohen’s New York Division

Cohen and Moran weren’t just in town to give workshops. The bassist was here with his New York Division, a hard grooving six piece that comprises his working trio of pianist Nitai Hershkovits and drummer Daniel Dor, plus a front line made up guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, trumpeter Diego Urcola and trombonist Steve Davis, all former collaborators from the Big Apple. Their set felt like joyful reunion, as much a jam session as a gig, full of blazing solos and infectious grooves that lit up the bassist’s back catalogue and expanded upon tracks from his latest trio album, From Darkness.

There were mesmeric vamps and swaggering montunos, mellow brass chorales and rockier episodes, over which Rosenwinkle’s guitar slithered like an electric eel. Both Dor and Hershkovitz were on fire – the latter spinning out vicious, switchback lines – but it was Urcola who got the best reception from the crowd. On trumpet he can shred like Freddie Hubbard while his flugel sound is dusky and effortlessly laid back. All the while, Cohen pouted and weaved, dancing with his bass and cooing over the soloists.

He gave us a handful of thrumming bass features, a surging Afro Cuban finisher and a haunting rendition of ‘Nature Boy’ – the perfect match for his soft-textured vocals. His bass playing isn’t as explosive as that of someone like Christian McBride, but he more than makes up for it with the quality of his compositions, not to mention limitless energy, charisma and groove. Here he also proved himself a great facilitator and in the New York Division he’s assembled a truly formidable band.

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Jason Moran’s Fats Waller Dance Party

The energy levels were ramped up again the following night for Jason Moran’s Fats Waller Dance Party, which achieved the impossible by getting the conservative Montreux Jazz Club crowd up on their feet – albeit only during the encore. I don’t know how they held out so long. The set was a whirlwind, a gloriously feral assault on the senses that captured the essence of Waller’s music while simultaneously reinventing it almost beyond recognition.

On ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ Lisa Harris’ blurry, intoxicating vocals hovered over a stuttering hip hop backbeat – the contrast all the more disorientating thanks to Leron Thomas’ old school, muted trumpet lines. ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’ got a sultry, R&B refit, anchored by the kind of riff that hangs around in your auditory cortex for days, and ‘Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do’ was rendered melancholic to the point of harrowing, underscored by dull, snare drum hits that accentuated the feeling of anguish and disappointment. Moran set out to explore some of the sadness and the trauma behind Waller’s beaming performer persona and he’s nailed it.

The pacing of the set was immaculate too. ‘Two Sleepy People’, a vocal number for Thomas, slowed things down. There was a freewheeling feature for Moran and drummer Charles Haynes, whose power, groove and ability to obscure the barline rivals that of Chris Dave, and in a momentary departure from Waller repertoire, there was a radical recasting of Ornette Coleman’s ‘Lonely Woman’ – like a club remix with exaggerated operatic vocals from Harris and a trippy, electro backing track.

With the band in vibrant fabrics and Moran in a Haitian carnival mask – a hefty Waller head complete with hat and smouldering papier-mâché fag – there’s a strong visual dimension to the performance which heightens the immersion and channels Waller’s theatrical side. The whole thing amounts to a towering feat of imagination.

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Justin Kauflin Trio

Every gig at Montreux is a double bill – excellent for raising the profile of emerging artists – and before Moran’s performance I was glad to catch a set from Justin Kauflin, a young American pianist (blind since the age of 11) who’s being hailed by Quincy Jones as the next big thing. Kauflin seemed to have arrived at Montreux in R&B mode (you can hear the influence of Robert Glasper in the way articulates his chords) and his playing was less varied than it is on his debut album, Dedication, where hard bop and classical tropes also reveal themselves. But his trio set, with bassist Chris Smith and drummer Billy Williams, was memorable all the same. Original compositions dedicated to former teachers – among them Mulgrew Miller and Clark Terry – were soulful and heartfelt, punctuated by chocolatey bass solos from Smith and virtuosic bursts from Kauflin – long ribbons of notes in which he proved himself a master of melodic development. On the agitated groove of ‘The Up and Up’ Williams was magisterial and a Beatles cover, ‘A Day In The Life’, was full of pleasing interplay and switches of groove, with a scattering of hip hop beats.

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Lorenz Kellhuber

Though it was Kauflin who got the bigger reception from the crowd, the discovery of the festival for me was 25-year-old German pianist Lorenz Kellhuber, who won Montreux’s Parmigiani Piano Solo Competition in 2014. Kellhuber released a trio album, State of Mind, earlier this year, but he took the stage alone to play four long improvisations of astonishing depth and maturity.

There were bluesy episodes and forays into gospel, echoes of ambient rock, exploratory passages lit by quivering stacks of fourths and underwritten by dense classical harmony, and burst of frightening virtuosity. Swirling motifs went on for improbable lengths of time and never seemed to waver (Kellhuber clearly has iron technique) and the whole thing was underscored by serious good taste. There was nothing extraneous. No resort to virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake. Everything was in the service of the music and, with timely switches between line playing and chordal work, the pacing was bang on.

The second half of the set brought covers of Eric Clapton’s ‘Tears in Heaven’, Hendrix’s ‘Little Wing’ and ‘Can’t Find My Way Home’ by Blind Faith and you could here that, even here, Kellhuber was stretching himself, tinkering with the harmony and finding beautiful, unexpected resolutions. The obvious comparison is with Keith Jarrett, who Kellhuber cites as a major influence. He seems similarly swept away by the music – his head continually hacksawing back and forth. If he goes on to similarly great things I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

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D’Angelo and the Vanguard

Though jazz has always been at the heart of Montreux, nowadays the programming is considerably more varied. Many of this year’s headliners have little or nothing to do with the tradition (along with Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, Lionel Richie, Sam Smith, Portishead and the Chemical Brothers all top the bill). Others are on the fringes, and I couldn’t resist watching a set by the reincarnated D’Angelo – a neo soul pioneer whose influence can be heard in the work of Jacob Collier, and without whom it’s hard to imagine Jarrod Lawson.

He’s just released his first album for 15 years and has assembled a phenomenal band to celebrate. Among others, the 11-piece Vanguard features veteran bassist Pino Palladino, maverick drummer Chris Dave, guitarist Isaiah Sharkey (a member of Dave’s Drumhedz) and trumpeter Keyon Harrold, whose contributions to recent Otis Brown III release The Thought of You are some of the album’s most memorable.

It was an angsty sort of gig. D’Angelo kept us waiting for almost an hour, with half the crowd booing as he took the stage. But by the time he sauntered off again they were eating out of his hand. Mainstream it may be, but this is serious music making. D’Angelo’s vocals ranged from silky and angelic to raw and impassioned and he orchestrated hits with a wave of his hand, à la James Brown. Classics like ‘Brown Sugar’ were fitted out with inventive new horn parts and a raft of new grooves. The band took risks and there was acres of space for the soloists to shine, with Harrold contributing flaring lines, Sharkey leaning towards intricate post bop phrases and Dave getting up to his usual, confoundingly brilliant, rhythmic trickery.

At the height of ‘The Charade’, a furious response to police brutality in the US, with Dave nailing his snare drum and the whole band shredding, the atmosphere was electric. My notebook was a sweaty, ink-smeared mess and I couldn’t have been happier. It felt like history in the making, but that’s nothing new for Montreux. Here it’s just another story in a long list – a footnote in the tale of this glitzy musical Narnia with its powder blue lake and fairy tale castle, a place where an appearance from a pyjama-clad Quincy Jones is nothing out of the ordinary. The festival turns 50 next year. If you’ve never experienced it, I suggest you go.

– Thomas Rees @ThomasNRees

Photos credits as follows – The Jazz Lab (Credit: 2015 FFJM Marc Ducrest), Cohen (Credit: 2015 FFJM Daniel Balmat), Moran (Credit: 2015 FFJM Marc Ducrest), Kauflin (Credit: 2015 FFJM Marc Ducrest), Kellhuber (Credit: 2015 FFJM Daniel Balmat) and D’Angelo (Credit: 2015 FFJM Lionel Flusin)

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Review: Chick Corea & Herbie Hancock, Barbican

Moments of brilliance ensure this rare collaboration from two jazz legends lives up to the hype

There was a buzz at the Barbican last night, the kind that makes you feel like a child again, a ripple of electric energy that only comes with seeing the true greats. And they don’t come much greater than Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, two jazz legends with strikingly similar trajectories. Both cut their teeth playing with Miles, both helped determine the direction of jazz-rock fusion and, though they’re now in their mid 70s, both have continued to push the boundaries.

A huge cheer went up as they took the stage, looking supremely relaxed, with Hancock thanking the crowd and Corea declaring it a privilege to play with his “buddy and musical inspiration”. Their setlist brought some crowd-pleasing moments, too. The unmistakeable bassline of “Cantaloupe Island” was greeted with spontaneous applause, and there was a superb reimagining of the Hancock classic “Maiden Voyage”, which began with gently padding chords before opening out into a knotty groove, with both men leaning into the cadences and Hancock really giving it some, through gritted teeth.

In between came extended passages of improvised interplay as they faced one another across two acoustic and two electric pianos. There were digital wobbles, murmurs and sighs, rolled chords and tumbling motifs that called to mind Stravinsky, and folk melodies that suggested the influence of Bartók.

Sometimes these interactions bordered on the uncanny. They lingered together on melodies and stopped dead without so much as a look. Interjecting stabs landed with pinpoint precision – as if each man knew exactly where the other was headed – and they seemed to delight in reharmonising each other’s lines and setting up fiendish, interlocking grooves and rhythmic riddles for one another to solve.

It didn’t always work. “Cantaloupe Island” was a little cluttered and unsteady at times. Some keyboard tinkering from Hancock, in which he experimented with a few vaguely orgasmic vocal samples, prompted sniggers, and there were moments when the crowd seemed to want a few more tunes that they recognised.

Corea acknowledged as much when they returned for the encore, settling on “Spain” and inviting us to sing back progressively complex fragments of the melody. “They seem real musical, this audience,” he joked. “They must be to still be here after all that!”

Even so, it was great to see that Hancock and Corea have lost none of their musical curiosity and there was more than enough brilliance on display to ensure that the post-concert atmosphere matched the pre-gig buzz. As the two legends left the stage a group of boys ran down to the front to shake hands. Giddy and still a little star-struck, I think we all felt a bit like joining them.

— Thomas Rees

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Review: Freedom Festival, The Vortex

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Thomas Rees

— Photo credit: Black Top

An edited version of this article was originally published on 

Review: Eliane Elias and Ed Motta, The Barbican


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Thomas Rees

– Photo credit: Lucas Secret/Wikicommons

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Seb Rochford and Co, Brilliant Corners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Thomas Rees

— Photo: Miguel Echeverria

This article was originally published on 

Christian Mcbride Trio Make Wigmore Hall Swing

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

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

ChristianMcbride MG 4140

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

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

– Thomas Rees

– Photos by Roger Thomas

Review: Fatoumata Diawara and Roberto Fonseca, Barbican

The musical traditions of Cuba and Mali leave a capacity crowd in raptures

Though they may be separated by thousands of miles, Cuba and Mali share a common musical connection. Right at the heart of Cuban music lie rhythms from sub-saharan African and last night the two traditions were united once again when Havana-born piano virtuoso Roberto Fonseca (of Buena Vista Social Club fame) took the stage with Fatoumata Diawara, a Malian singer and guitarist who is fast becoming a giant of the world music scene.

The pair first met when Fonseca invited Diawara to feature on his 2012 releaseYo, in which he explored his own African roots. Since then they seem to have been inseparable, touring extensively, shaking up Womad festival and appearing at Jazz in Marciac, where their debut, At Home, was recorded.

It’s a strong release but, as last night’s set proved, it’s nothing on seeing them live. Theirs was a set full of passion and charisma, a blend of fibrous Malian melodies and intoxicating Afro-Cuban grooves in which astonishing feats of musicianship were commonplace.

The dancing rhythms of “Yemaya” set the tone, as Fonseca’s piano raced away and Diawara squared up to the audience, finger wagging, her voice rough-edged and stern. Next came “Sowa”, ushered in by a “Superstition” synth groove, and “Connection”, which saw Fonseca pounding out octaves, his hand a blur, and launching solos for the rest of the band with bursts of swaggering montuno and muscular, cross-handed piano slides that made the keyboard ripple.

“Clandestin” changed the pace, with the pianist taking a backseat in favour of Drissa Sidibé’s kamalen n’goni, a west African lute that sounds like water running over stones. Here and on “Real Family”, a duet with Fonseca, Diawara’s richly-textured voice was the star. It’s a voice full of gravel and grit, that cracks like parched earth as it opens in great yawning stretches, and as the two musicians embraced at the end of the song it had the Barbican crowd cheering themselves hoarse.

So too did “San Miguel”, a rhythmically astonishing game of cat and mouse performed by Fonseca and the band’s Cuban contingent. Bassist Yandi Martínez and drummer Ramsés Rodríguez played like only Habaneros can, spinning out grooves that were at once impossibly together and light years apart and leaving Fonseca’s piano to soar over the top.

The party continued with “Mandela” and “United”, as Diawara unwound her headdress, hitching up her skirts and dancing across the stage with a click of shell-adorned braids. Solos from guitarist Sekou Bah and the rest of the band whipped up the crowd still further and the response was one the biggest Barbican receptions I’ve heard in years. With the whole place on its feet, it took two encores, “Nedbufo” and “Bibisa”, the Fonseca track that first brought these musicians together, before the roars subsided.

There was a sense of theatre about an opening set from French-Israeli singer Yaël Naim and her trio too –  a new discovery for me but a voice I won’t forget. Soft and husky one minute, with a shade of an accent that added to the mystique, and soulful the next, her vocal lines arced through the space like something from The Dark Side of the Moon.

“Dream In My Head”, the first tune that saw her really let rip, and “Coward”, with it’s Bach-y piano lines, sighing cadences and unexpected turns, were both superb. The bubble burst when she departed from her own material and launched a melodramatic rendition of Britney Spears‘s “Toxic”, but for the most part she had the audience transfixed.

As we filed out though, all of the talk was about Fonseca and Diawara and you can understand why. If they keep this up we may well be talking about them for years to come.

— Thomas Rees