Backtracking: jazz encounters in the room of dreams

Backtracking: jazz encounters in the room of dreams

It’s a curious thing, but just as I was entering the time of sleep lost after the arrival of the new pup, I began listening to the new release on the ECM label from the Tarkovsky Quartet. Not only was the album entitled Nuit blanche (‘sleepless night’ this side of the Channel), it also featured a dog on the cover. Not only that, the quartet, founded some years ago by the French pianist François Couturier and consisting of cellist Anja Lechner, soprano saxophonist Jean-Marc Larché and accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier takes its name from the Russian film director whose greatest works include Stalker – which was itself the subject of Zona, a brilliant meandering, meditative book by Geoff Dyer, a bunch of whose books were all that I could focus on in the indolent, zoned-out state in which I found myself. In situations like this you can’t help asking, ‘What’s going on?’ Continue reading “Backtracking: jazz encounters in the room of dreams”


The music in my head in 2016

The music in my head in 2016

Something I’ve remarked on before is that these posts don’t properly reflect the ubiquitous presence of music in my daily life. Occasionally I do mention a new album that has made an impact, and I do record here all the live music events that I attend. But there’s always so much more. So here is a roundup of some of the music which I have particularly enjoyed in 2016. The post ends with a playlist of the music mentioned. Continue reading “The music in my head in 2016”

Markus Stockhausen and Florian Weber at RNCM: exhilarating, intuitive music

Markus Stockhausen and Florian Weber at RNCM: exhilarating, intuitive music

Among the galaxy of boundary-probing musicians recorded by Manfred Eicher’s ECM label, the name of Markus Stockhausen has a particular resonance. He’s the son of composer and pioneer of the avant-garde Karlheinz Stockhausen, regarded as one of the great visionaries of 20th-century music, with whom Markus collaborated on several compositions.

The flugelhorn player has got a new album out on ECM, Alba, on which he appears with pianist Florian Weber, and he was at the RNCM in Manchester last night to promote it, at the same time leading sessions teaching students the rudiments of what he calls ‘intuitive music’.  During the concert – in which the duo – a.k.a. Inside Out – played several compositions from the new CD, we were treated to two exhilarating examples of intuitive music, performed with a band of the brilliant students with whom he had been working. Continue reading “Markus Stockhausen and Florian Weber at RNCM: exhilarating, intuitive music”

In Movement from Jack DeJohnette’s Trio: history, yet very much of the present

<em>In Movement</em> from Jack DeJohnette’s Trio: history, yet very much of the present

I’ve been listening to what will surely be the finest jazz record of the year – and one that I reckon will come to be regarded as one of the classic releases on the ECM label. It’s In Movement, the first release from Jack DeJohnette’s new trio who have been playing together for a couple of years. Now they have produced a very fine album of contemporary jazz, full of historical resonances, on which all three musicians deliver stellar performances. Continue reading In Movement from Jack DeJohnette’s Trio: history, yet very much of the present”

Arild Anderson Trio at the Band on the Wall: fiery, intense, soulful

Arild Anderson Trio at the Band on the Wall: fiery, intense, soulful

Arild Andersen’s name has run like a thread through almost the entire history of ECM records, all the way back to the double-bass player’s collaboration with Jan Garbarek on Afric Pepperbird back in 1971. His most recent project has been the trio formed a decade ago with Paolo Vinaccia on drums and Tommy Smith on saxophone. I saw them play a spell-bindingly energetic set at Manchester’s Band on the Wall. Continue reading “Arild Anderson Trio at the Band on the Wall: fiery, intense, soulful”

Hymns and visions: the quiet fire of Tord Gustavsen and Simin Tander

Hymns and visions: the quiet fire of Tord Gustavsen and Simin Tander

The Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen is renowned for the hypnotically hushed tones of the half-dozen albums he has recorded for ECM during the last 15 years. So we were not entirely surprised on Saturday evening, in the stripped-back surroundings of the CBSO Centre in Birmingham, to experience jazz at its  quietest and most minimal. Continue reading “Hymns and visions: the quiet fire of Tord Gustavsen and Simin Tander”

Keith Jarrett at the Royal Festival Hall: music can heal

Keith Jarrett at the Royal Festival Hall: music can heal

Play like you think it’s going to be the last time. That’s the only way to play.
Keith Jarrett

Precisely one week after the atrocities began in Paris we were in the Royal Festival Hall watching Keith Jarrett give one of his most intense and impassioned solo performances. Hunched over the Steinway, his face at times just inches from the keys, the man in the single spotlight and all of us gathered together to hear him play represented everything that the killers seek to destroy – a shared pleasure in music and the freedom to mingle at peace on a Friday night with other human beings from anywhere in the world, of all faiths or none.

Continue reading “Keith Jarrett at the Royal Festival Hall: music can heal”

The music in my head (part 3): jazz and beyond

The music in my head (part 3): jazz and beyond

This is the third post in which I recall some of the music I’ve enjoyed in 2015 but never got round to writing about. This one is dedicated (with two exceptions) to music recorded on the record label that is, for me, indispensable – ECM. There’s a lot of jazz, examples of the gift of ECM’s guiding spirit Manfred Eicher for bringing together musicians from different contexts to create wonderful sounds, and some of the contemporary music released on the ECM New Series label. Continue reading “The music in my head (part 3): jazz and beyond”

Sinikka Langeland’s mix of Norwegian folk, jazz and poetry

Sinikka Langeland’s mix of Norwegian folk, jazz and poetry

Yet another gem emerged from the cornucopia of ECM Records last month – The half-finished heaven, the fourth album that Sinikka Langeland, the kantele player, singer and composer from Norway has recorded for Manfred Eicher’s label.

It’s a gorgeous record from an artist I first encountered in 2006, when she released her first ECM recording, Starflowers.  Like that album – and The Land That is Not that followed it – The half-finished heaven is an inspiring mix of Norwegian folk, jazz and poetry. Continue reading “Sinikka Langeland’s mix of Norwegian folk, jazz and poetry”

The Tord Gustavsen Quartet: intense presence and calmness

The Tord Gustavsen Quartet: intense presence and calmness

Tord Gustavsen Quartet

The Tord Gustavsen Quartet l to r: Jarle Vespestad, Tore Brunborg, Tord Gustavsen, Mats Eilertsen

I like a bit of melancholia in my music, and you couldn’t get more melancholy than the second album by the Tord Gustavsen Trio, The Ground – described in the Guardian when it was released in 2005 as wallowing ‘in those feelings of faint melancholy you get when gazing out of the window on a wet Sunday afternoon’.  The spare, slow moving but hauntingly beautiful melody of ‘Tears Transforming’, the opening track of that album, was my introduction to the Norwegian pianist’s trio which, ‘if there was an award for the quietest band in the world’ – to quote the Guardian again – ‘would win it hands down’.

On Sunday evening we went to the Barbican’s new Milton Court venue, exquisitely furnished in what could possibly be Norwegian wood, to hear Tord Gustavsen’s Quartet play a considerably more dynamic show.  The music here – as on Extended Circle,  the new album by the Quartet – sounded more muscular, more purposeful, than on the trio of restrained Trio albums (Changing Places, The Ground and Being There) that we have grown to love in our house. I don’t know to what extent the addition of saxophonist Tore Brunborg was responsible – he was certainly not alone in launching off from the passages of meditative stillness into less fragile, more gloves-off improvisations.

They began quietly enough, as Gustavsen explored the keys of the piano almost inaudibly, the hush broken only by the whispering of brushed cymbal from Jarle Vespestad.  But Gustavsen was soon on his feet, Keith Jarrett-style, black-suited and hunched over the keyboards like some Nosferatu figure, writhing and twisting as the sinuous melodies spooled out.  Jarle Vespestad is, apparently, renowned for his aggressive drumming; as if recognising his own predilections, but affecting some restraint, at times he applied a towel to his drum kit, in order to muffle the sound.

The programme consisted of tunes from the new Quartet album, Extended Circle, along with older trio pieces – all of them re-worked in fine improvisations that revealed an ensemble in perfect tune with each other.  In interviews about the new album Gustavsen has agreed that the quartet cuts loose more than on the trio albums:

But to me, it is the same basic approach. We’ve always had a combination of restraint and passion, but that can work out in different ways. On this album we’ve found ways to include a bit more dynamic and more…you could even say extroverted playing, within our framework of a contemplative, stripped-down approach.

Tord Gustavsen

Tord Gustavsen

Gustavsen introduced several of the numbers in a hoarse whisper.  One, he said, was in a major key – ‘something rather difficult for us as Norwegian musicians; we are more at home in the minor, the melancholy’. But there’s something else: he has described some of his songs as ‘wordless hymns’:

I grew up singing hymns.  Whenever I can stretch out for new land musically on the basis of a fundamental hymnal structure, then the music becomes liberated.  Anyone can play weird stuff, it’s finding a way that feels rooted yet free, and for me, that freedom is connected with spirituals and lullabies.

This religious influence has often been acknowledged by Gustavsen, who played in church while growing up, and it was apparent at times in this performance. Introducing ‘Eg Veit I Himmerick Ei Borg’ (‘A Castle in Heaven’) from the new album, Gustavsen explained that it is based on a Norwegian folk song, often sung at funerals,  which nevertheless has at its heart a message of hope:

I know of a heavenly stronghold
shining as bright as the sun;
there are neither sin nor sorrow
and never a tear is shed.

I am a weary traveller;
may my path lead me
from here to the land of my father;
God, protect me on my way.

Gustavsen says has known this tune since childhood:

It carries an intense duality of sorrow and hope, both in its music and in its lyrics. And those lyrics are at the back of my head. Hymns and spirituals are a fundamental part of my core and it’s a blessing to find new and mature ways of relating to those roots.

It’s on this beautiful number especially that Tore Brunborg’s sax soars to the most passionate solo of the night – one very much in the style of Jan Garbarek. It’s a spine-tingling moment in a a brilliant concert.

With regard to the title of the new album, Gustavsen has described the Quartet as:

A creative circle or community – pulsating through communal experience, but also through whatever the individual musicians do outside this circle and bring back to the collective. The modernistic notion of linear progress is dead… we want to move in creative circles or spirals, coming back to musical and spiritual issues from ever-new angles, developing the musical approach or ideology with – hopefully – a deeper insight, a deeper set of experiences and skills.

This passion for uniting raw emotion with elegance and an almost meditational type of playing will never be finished. It’s probably my life’s mission to keep exploring the different dilemmas and challenges and potentials of that, because it’s connected to a very fundamental life purpose of mine – musically and spiritually – to unite intense presence with calmness.
– Tord Gustavsen

Arild Andersen Quintet: pan-European jazz stars

Arild Andersen Quintet: pan-European jazz stars

Arild Andersen Quintet

Arild Andersen Quintet

In the previous post I wrote of going along to the Southbank Centre to hear Arild Andersen’s star-studded Quintet perform at one of the opening events of this year’s London Jazz Festival and being blown away by the opening act –  Reisjeger/Fraanje/Sylla.  At the interval we turned to each other and said, ‘Arild Andersen’s going to have to be damn good to top that’.

Well he was – the genial Andersen led his relatively new, pan-European quintet through a superb set of his own compositions  from ECM albums like Electra, Hyperborean and Sagn, plus some new material from the Quintet’s forthcoming first album (copies of which were exclusively on sale in the foyer).

Andersen has said that the Quintet ‘started out as an idea to connect the musicians I have been working with the last ten years’ as an occasional side project to the regular trio he has with Italian drummer Paolo Vinaccia and Scottish saxophonist Tommy Smith. Sometimes Andy Sheppard might be in the frame, and sometimes the trumpet player could be Paolo Fresu or Mathias Eick, depending on who’s available. For this concert the Quintet comprised a stellar lineup of ECM European jazz greats: in addition to Arild Andersen on bass (Norway), it consisted of Patrice Heral on drums (France), Marcin Wasilewski on piano (Poland), Tommy Smith on saxophone (Scotland) and Matthieu Michel on flugelhorn (Switzerland).

The set opened with a number from the forthcoming ECM album Mira, the haunting ‘Reparate’ with Andersen leading on bowed bass.  Here’s how Michael Tucker summed up the Quintet’s performance in his review for Jazz Journal:

Throughout the set, their empathy and understanding were in plentiful evidence. Executed (on his new lion-crowned bass) with characteristic glee and sensuous commitment, Andersen’s dazzlingly fleet pizzicato lines elicited quicksilver response from a drummer who knows how to exploit the full dynamic range of his kit – and then some, courtesy of sensitively employed electronics and the zestful talent for Indian-inflected vocalizing which capped the closing number.  With modal and harmonic elements in the mix, Wasilewski offered rubato, up-tempo, and also funky lines (all on regular piano apart from one ostinato foray on keyboards) while Smith complemented an increasingly authoritative, practically sculpted lyricism on tenor (especially in the upper registers) with an affectingly folkish outing on shakuhachi flute. Music for grown-ups with open hearts and minds, the melodically appealing, dynamically sensitive and sometimes rhythmically fierce concert went down a storm with a full house which included Andersen’s old playing partner, drummer John Marshall.

Tommy Smith and Arild Andersen

Tommy Smith and Arild Andersen

That shakuhachi solo by Tommy Smith was outstanding – reminding me of his wonderful solo album, Into Silence, two dozen improvisations around folk songs, ballads and Gregorian chants recorded in the beautiful and haunting reverberation of the Hamilton Mausoleum.  It was a peaceful moment in a largely up-tempo set dominated by the terrific rapport between Andersen and Heral who provided a driving rhythmic backbone for the performance.

Another reviewer, Thomas Rees, offered this assessment:

The veteran Norwegian bassist, described the pan-European quintet, which featured Poland’s Marcin Wasilewski on piano, Frenchman Patrice Heral on Drums, Swiss trumpeter Matthieu Michel on flugelhorn and Scotland’s own Tommy Smith on tenor saxophone, as his ‘dream group’ and it was clear from his playing that he meant it.

The set was a whirlwind of tempo changes and metric modulations. Wistful melodies raced away into snatches of surging swing with the rhythm section pushing hard, urging the group on. Gentle ballads, like ‘Lucia’, and passages of introspection drew the audience in. They sounded strange and beautiful with simple tunes and chord changes that evoked songbook classics while remaining contemporary and free. It was almost as if you had heard them before, as if Andersen were rescuing old melodies from the swirling fog of your imperfect memory.

The bassist’s arco lines radiated warmth, like the soft red curtains and heavy lamps that adorned the stage, but his playing could be aggressive too. His angular, off-kilter duets with Heral, with whom he has worked in numerous different settings over the past ten years, were a particular highlight. The pair were all smiles as they second-guessed and wrong-footed one another, trading and reinventing ideas. They brought the best out of Wasilewski who stamped his foot and hunched his shoulders, spinning out lines and snatching his hand away from the keyboard as if he were afraid it might become entangled in the threadlike melodies. Michel and Smith were imperious throughout. The scotsman contributed muscular solos on up- tempo numbers like ‘The Fox’ with altissimo holds and twisting lines that were heartfelt, almost Coltrane-like. His gentle introduction to the last ballad of the set, played on wooden flute, recalled the airy folk music of the Andes and was a further highlight. It blended perfectly with the enviable sound of Michel’s flugelhorn which came soaring out of the texture to take up the melody.

In a final change of pace, the quintet’s closing number saw Heral vocalising the rhythms of his kit, distorting and layering them with a loop pedal and playing over the top, thrashing at tomtoms and cymbals. After a nod from Andersen, the tune’s signature riff returned, the voices of the horns filling the auditorium and adding to Heral’s shouts: a climatic whirlwind of sound and a final hymn to cooperation and interplay.

Apart from his own albums as leader (the best of which in my opinion is Live at Belleville, recorded in 2008 with Paolo Vinaccia & Tommy Smith), Andersen has appeared on ECM albums by Jan Garbarek (such as Afric Pepperbird and Sart), Terje Rypdal, Markus Stockhausen and Andy Sheppard (the superb Movements in Colour).

Arild Andersen Quintet: ‘The Fox’ at Oslo Jazzfestival 2012

Arild Andersen Quintet: ‘Reparate’ at Oslo Jazzfestival 2012

Arild Andersen Quintet: ‘Basswave’ at Oslo Jazzfestival 2012

Arild Andersen Quintet: ‘Lucia’ at Oslo Jazzfestival 2012

Arild Andersen Quintet: ‘Saturday’ at Oslo Jazzfestival 2012

See also

John Surman: Songs from the West Country

John Surman 2

Not much time goes by in our household without the music of John Surman being played; this week we’ve been listening again to a couple of albums he recorded in the 1990s that share a distinctive West Country ethos: Road to St Ives and A Biography of  the Rev. Absalom Dawe.  These albums epitomise how Surman, who was born in Tavistock, Devon in 1944, has often been inspired by his West country roots in the music that he has created since the 1970s.

Surman can be a difficult artist to pigeonhole: he’s a jazzman, obviously, but his compositions have drawn on folk, choral and other traditions, too.  As his official website puts it, ‘John Surman is one of the key figures in a generation of European musicians who have crucially expanded the international horizons of jazz during the past thirty years or so’.  Surman is also a multi-instrumentalist, playing saxophone, clarinet and keyboards, and most renowned as a master of the bass saxophone.  He has produced solo albums (such as the first two of my featured trio) on which he plays all the instruments, but has also collaborated with jazz musicians of renown from America and Europe, especially those who  record for the ECM label, for which Surman has mainly worked since the 1980s.  He plays in all kinds of settings, from small group to big band, and has produced albums that involve collaborations between himself and church organ (Proverbs and Songs, 1998 and Rain on the Window, 2008), with Jack de Johnette on drums and percussion (Invisible Nature, 2002), with a string quintet (The Spaces In Between, 2007) and with tenor John Potter singing 16th century compositions by John Dowland (In Darkness Let Me Dwell, 1999).

Road to St Ives is a set of gentle, lilting compositions, entirely a one-man effort, with Surman writing all the compositions and producing every sound heard on the album, building layers of sound as he plays melodies on bass clarinet and soprano and bass saxophones over a keyboard and percussion wash.

The album is inspired by the landscape and spirit of Cornwall, and while drawing on the English folk tradition, remains clearly in the jazz tradition. On the CD sleeve, Surman explains:

Most  of the  music  on  this  recording  has been inspired by the landscape and history of the county of  Cornwall in England.  I am not  Cornish.  My birthplace lies just to the east of the river Tamar, which forms the border between Devon and Cornwall.  However,  ever  since  my  first  visit  to  Land’s End, the county has held a special fascination for me. Its early inhabitants are traceable back to Paleolithic man. It has a language of its own, which remained in use up until the nineteenth  century.  With a rich fund of  folklore and legend in addition, I’ve found much to inspire me. The pieces are not intended to be musical  portraits of particular places or events, the titles being simply a collection of some of  the intriguing  place-names found on and around the road to St. Ives.

Surman’s soprano sax shimmers on this on the recording, lending tracks such as ‘Kelly Bray’ and ‘Perranporth’, with its sense of birdsong and birds wheeling and circling in flight, an ethereal air. In contrast, ‘BodminMoor, anchored by a bass figure on the piano, has a brooding air, but again with the saxophone suggesting wind, long views and birds in flight.  The most immediately memorable track is ‘Piperspool’, with its electronic noodling and breathy bass saxophone. The closing track, ‘Bedruthan Steps’, opens with synthesised notes that sound like distant church bells chiming.

In 1998 Surman produced a chamber orchestra version of Road to St. Ives. The work was commissioned and performed by the Bournemouth Sinfonietta.

Like many others, I regard A Biography of the Reverend Absalom Dawe as being John Surman’s most perfect achievement.  The album’s title refers to Surman’s great-great-grandfather, a country parson, and though there are no strings or vocals on this album, the form of many of the pieces is rooted in the English choral tradition, one of the musician’s earliest enthusiasms.  As a choirboy, and before he’d heard any jazz, he sang in West Country churches, and since the 1980s Surman has been reinvestigating these roots, especially on albums such as Proverbs and Songs (with organist Howard Moody and the Salisbury Cathedral Choir) and In Darkness Let Me Dwell, an album of songs by John Dowland performed by Surman and tenor John Potter.

On A Biography of the Rev Absalom Dawe, Surman once again plays bass saxophone as well as soprano sax, alto and bass clarinets, and keyboards. The electronic elements are limited and unobtrusive, and the keyboard’s bright tones are a good match for the fluid, breathy sounds of the wind instruments. The music is ethereal and atmospheric and the sound is crisp, the result of Surman recording each instrument separately and then mixing individual units into the whole. The compositions leap musical boundaries, with elements of contemporary classical composition, jazz, and European folk all being present.

The album opens with ‘First Light’, an atmospheric clarinet solo.  This leads into the beautiful, lilting melody of ‘Countless Journeys’. On ‘Twas but Piety’ a lyrical clarinet passage leads into a central section in which a jazzy saxophone improvisation begins over a funereal synthesised drone  before spiralling into a a passionate solo. ‘Wayfarer’ harks back to the sound of Road to St Ives, with a moody, reflective baritone sax solo played over a keyboard figure.

John Surman’s music transcends familiar boundaries. A deep love of the jazz tradition runs throughout his work, and he is equally affected by the melodic qualities of choral music – as a one-time choirboy – and by English folk music:

If I look back to what turned me on about music, it is what I heard before I ever came across jazz.

Much of his work is powerfully resonant of the landscape and tradition of the West Country, perhaps most especially on these two albums.