At the London Jazz Festival: Mehldau and Redman deliver a jazz masterclass, but the Garbarek quartet disappoints

At the London Jazz Festival: Mehldau and Redman deliver a jazz masterclass, but the Garbarek quartet disappoints

Once again, we made the journey down to the capital to sample three events during the opening weekend of the London Jazz Festival. The music began with what was, for me, a welcome second helping of Tord Gustavsen’s collaboration with the German-Afghan vocalist Simin Tander on songs from their ECM album, What Was Said. The weekend concluded with a strong set but not totally convincing set from the Jan Garbarek Quartet at the Royal Festival Hall. But the outstanding event was a masterclass of breathtaking jazz improvisation by pianist Brad Mehldau and saxophonist Joshua Redman. That alone was worth the journey. Continue reading “At the London Jazz Festival: Mehldau and Redman deliver a jazz masterclass, but the Garbarek quartet disappoints”

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”

At London Jazz Festival: John Surman and Abdullah Ibrahim

At London Jazz Festival: John Surman and Abdullah Ibrahim

Last weekend we marked the opening of the 2014 London Jazz Festival by attending concerts by two jazz greats: John Surman, celebrating his seventieth year, and Abdullah Ibrahim, now in his 80th year.

On Friday evening, while upstairs Guardian journalists were beavering away producing the next day’s newspaper, we were at the elegant new(ish) venue King’s Place, just behind King’s Cross station, to see saxophonist John Surman perform with Trans4mation, the terrific string quartet that he has been writing for and  recording and performing with for some fifteen years. Continue reading “At London Jazz Festival: John Surman and Abdullah Ibrahim”

Jazz at the Philharmonic: the sound of America

Jazz at the Philharmonic: the sound of America

On our last evening in London we wanted to sample another delight from the London Jazz Festival; Wayne Shorter with the BBC Symphony Orchestra was long sold out, so we opted for Jazz at the Philharmonic just down the street at the Barbican’s brand-new venue, Milton Court.

Devised by record producer Norman Granz back in the 1940s, Jazz at the Philharmonic brought together mainstream jazz artists with the radical forces of bebop, and lead to the founding of the classic jazz record label, Verve. Beginning with ground-breaking multiracial tours of the USA, Granz was soon organising overseas tours under the JATP banner that brought the greatest jazz musicians of the day to concert venues around the world to perform spotlight sets and impromptu jam sessions.

Norman Granz

Norman Granz

LJF organisers had designed this concert to evoke the spirit of JATP by bringing together a bunch of today’s jazz musicians to replicate the format of a JATP concert. At its core was the James Pearson Trio, house band at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club where Pearson is the Artistic Director. With Pearson on piano and doubling up as compère, were Sam Burgess on double bass and Pedro Segundo on drums.

James Pearson

James Pearson

They were joined on saxes by Peter King on sax (now in his 70s, in 1959 aged 19, he perform at the opening of Ronnie Scott’s), Nigel Hitchcock and Alex Garnett, on trumpet by Byron Wallen, and on drums by Gary Husband.  In first set Jacqui Dankworth took on the female vocalist’s performed by Ella Fitzgerald in many of the original JATP shows, while in the second half French pianist Jacky Terrasson made a rare UK appearance.


In 1953 you could see all of these in one show – in the UK!

Before the musicians took over, Richard Havers, author of Verve: The Sound of America, a definitive new account of Jazz at the Philharmonic and the record label established by Norman Granz that brought some of the best jazz of the 1940s and 50s to the public, gave a short presentation of the JATP story illustrated by a slide-show of a selection from some of the many illustrations from his book – LP covers and performance photos, some of them never previously published.

In the Jazz Festival programme Richard Havers had written a short article outlining the significance of Verve and JATP:

It was at the tail end of 1955 that Norman Granz decided to form Verve Records. He did so for Ella Fitzgerald; he already managed her career, but felt he knew how to make the kind of records the singer should be making – and history has proved he was right.

But the story of Verve begins a decade or more before, rooted in Granz’s ambition to take jazz out of the clubs and into concert halls, as well as in Clef and Norgran, the record labels he had been running for several years. On 2 July 1944, the 25-year-old Granz staged his first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert. From the outset, Granz had a clear vision of what he wanted to achieve by taking jazz into more ‘respectable’ music venues such as New York City’s Carnegie Hall. Besides introducing the genre to an expanding audience, Granz was fighting racial segregation (a fight that cost him both professionally and personally).And as the .Jazz at the Philharmonic tours grew more extensive, Granz developed the template for modern touring that is replicated today by just about every kind of artist, across jazz, rock and every other musical genre.


For Granz, starting a record company was a way of expanding his Jazz at the Philharmonic franchise – but almost immediately the artists appearing in his concerts recognised the opportunity to make studio recordings. By the late 1940s and early 1950s the artists Granz recorded for his Clef and Norgran labels included Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, Count Basie and Stan Getz. Soon after founding Verve, Granz placed Clef and Norgran under the umbrella of his new company, a move that gave his fledgling label a roster of artists and recordings representing much of the best of jazz’s golden era. New artists were signed to Verve and, as the company expanded, many new fans discovered jazz. In 1960, Granz sold Verve to MGM Records. Soon Creed Taylor was running the label and taking it in a new direction; with records by Getz and Charlie Byrd, Getz and João Gilberto, and of course, Gilberto’s wife Astrud, the label benefited enormously from the bossa nova jazz craze sweeping in from South America.  Jazz was still cool, but it was also in the charts, and more popular than ever. Verve signed new artists, including Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery, who became further conduits for converts – and the label helped spread the jazz word around the world.

Jazz at the Philharmonic

It’s an oft-repeated notion that jazz is America’s one true art form. On the inner bag of every Verve long-playing record released during the 1960s was written: ‘The .Jazz of America is on Verve’. It follows, therefore, that ‘the sound of America’ was on every record issued by the label. That, at least, is the reasoning that inspired Verve: The Sound of America. The book coincides with a programme of reissues, beginning with a five-CD box set that traces the story of the label through 100 of its single releases.

Verve is now part of Universal Music Group. Under the leadership of David Foster, it not only reissues from its treasury some of the great jazz records, but also thrives as a label for modern artists: Diana Krall, Trombone Shorty, Lizz Wright and Smokey Robinson, to name just a few. Seventy years after Granz decided to take jazz out of the clubs and into the concert halls, the musical revolution he founded continues to flourish.

Nat King Cole was among the artists who appeared at the very first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in 1944; in 2013, one of Verve’s releases has been an album by Nat King Cole’s daughter: Natalie Cole. The wheel has turned full circle.

Jazz at the Philharmonic visits Helsinki in 1953 along with Ella Fitzgerald and Gene Krupa

Jazz At The Philharmonic 1957 with Roy Eldridge and Oscar Peterson

Jazz at the Philharmonic 1956: Roy Eldridge and Oscar Peterson

And so to the music.  I have to say that things didn’t really catch alight in the first half.  The ‘house band’ were serviceable, but not especially thrilling.  Peter King on sax seemed rather frail, and often seemed to lack the breath to make a punch during his choruses.  Nor did Jacqui Dankworth set the house on fire; for some reason she chose to sing several downbeat numbers, including Billie Holiday’s ‘Gloomy Sunday’, as well as several other great songs – including  Gershwin’s ‘The Man I Love’ – but in a rather low-key manner.

Jacky Terrasson

Jacky Terrasson

However, in the second set sparks began to fly as the musicians replicated a JATP jam session. Jacky Terrasson joined the musicians on stage and was soon engaging Pearson in one of those highly competitive ‘cutting contest’ which were a highlight of JATP concerts, in which soloists would try to outdo each other in improvisation skill.  It was exuberant stuff, equalled by another extended contest between the two drummers.

All in all, it made for a satisfying evening, a mixture of live music and informative presentation, even if it wasn’t one of the all-time great shows.

Byron Wallen

Byron Wallen

A disappointing aspect of the evening for me personally was not to hear more of Byron Wallen in his own musical setting.  He’s made a series of really interesting albums that fuse elements of the jazz of black America with North African music and other ethnic influences.  Two particularly good albums are Meeting Ground (2007) and Indigo (2002).

Byron Wallen: ‘Rhythm of the Gods’ live at Spitz Club, London 2002

Norman Granz Jam Session

I love the JATP albums  – especially the early ones.  But I think my favourite Granz-produced session of that era is Jam Session, a 1952 recording, featuring the three top alto sax players of the era – Parker, Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges- with Ben Webster, Flip Phillips, Barney Kessel, Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown and J.C. Heard.  It’s got a lovely, woozy, late-night feel.

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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

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Reisjeger/Fraanje/Sylla: classicism, African rhythms and jazz improvisation

Reisjeger/Fraanje/Sylla: classicism, African rhythms and jazz improvisation


Our first evening in London was spent listening to Mozart.  The next two evenings were occupied with music of a very different kind, taking in concerts that were part of the 2013 London Jazz Festival.  On Saturday we went along to the Southbank Centre to hear Arild Andersen’s star-studded Quintet, and were blown away by the opening act who were previously unknown to me – a Dutch trio going simply under the name Reisjeger/Fraanje/Sylla.  This turned out to mean a brilliant jazz/chamber/world music combo featuring Ernst Reisjeger on cello, Harmen Fraanje on piano, and Mola Sylla on vocals and percussion.

Mola Sylla

They began quietly enough, pianist and cellist on stage trading lyrical lines as a chamber duet unfolded. Then – for a split-second – I thought some kind of protest was taking place as a man’s voice wailed at the back of the auditorium.  Turning to look, it was the third member of the trio, Mola Sylla, moving down through the auditorium singing in the declamatory style of the West African griot.  It was a spine-tingling moment that raised the hairs on the back of my neck.

What followed was a varied and tremendously exciting set which blended elements of European jazz and chamber music with African rhythms in a seamless mix. At times dynamic and dramatic, at others gentle or elegant, the trio combined voices and solos with both sensitivity and a wild, impassioned freedom. One minute Fraanje or Reijseger would pursue a lyrical passage that might have originated in the conservatoire, before striking out into angular, percussive improvisation.

Musicas do Mundo 2013 Festival in Sines

Reisjeger was a revelation, playing his cello in every way imaginable – bowing the strings in a conventional manner to produce fragile and haunting melodies, plucking the strings for jagged pizzicato passages, drumming on the body of his cello, and strumming chords while holding the instrument across his knee, like an oversized guitar. When bowed, Reijseger could make his cello evoke a Baroque melody. Plucked one way he caused it to sound like a jazz bass. Plucked another way, it echoed the tinkly notes of Sylla’s m’bira.

Sylla would respond with impassioned vocals, his voice at times strident and impassioned, at others tinged with melancholy. In robes of crimson and gold, he would stride around the stage twirling bird-callers and African rattles or, seated, pluck a delicate tune on the m’bira (traditional thumb piano) or xalam (the Wolof name for the two- or three-stringed instrument known as an ngoni in Mali).

Reisjeger Fraanje Sylla

Though from different backgrounds, Reijseger, Fraanje and Sylla have, I have learned since, been playing together for many years, both as a trio and in other projects, such as film scores for Werner Herzog’s recent films.  Sylla, from Senegal, met Reijseger after playing his first concerts in Amsterdam with his group Senemali in the late 1980’s. Since then Amsterdam has been Sylla’s home base. During the nest two decades they playing together frequently. Then, in 2007, Fraanje asked both Reijseger and Sylla to join him in a trio.

Back home with Google, I realised that I had been hearing Reijseger for some time: after starting out in the thriving Dutch Baroque and early music scene before branching out into avant-garde music and jazz, he is now best known for the boundary-crossing scores he has written for recent films by Werner Herzog, such as Requiem for a Dying Planet, The Wild Blue Yonder, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

Earlier this year the trio released their first record, and I’ve been listening to it a lot during the past week. Deep Down features many of the pieces performed at the Southbank Centre concert, and highlights include Reijseger’s melancholic ‘Elena’ and ‘Amerigo’, the spell-binding concert opener.  My favourite track at the moment is ‘Shaped by the Tide’, which begins with an intricate interplay between Fraanje’s piano and Sylla’s xalam before the cello enters, longing and lyrical.  Seven of the tracks feature Sylla’s vocals – sometimes declaiming his own Senegalese lyrics, sometimes singing wordlessly.

I’ve listened to several very good albums that blend African and European musical traditions. One example is Malian kora player Ballake Sissoko’s exquisite collaboration with the French cellist Vincent Segal, Chamber Music, the work of two musicians from very different backgrounds who seem to understand each other almost intuitively as the kora trades rippling lines with the cello. Another Sissoko collaboration, Diario Mali consists of duets with the Italian classical pianist Ludovico Einaudi on which the piano and kora interweave to produce sheer loveliness.  Or there’s the
Kora Jazz Trio, three West African musicians (Guinean kora player Djeli Moussa Diawara, Senegalese pianist Abdoulaye Diabaté and percussionist Moussa Cissoko) who effortlessly mix traditional West African styles with American jazz standards.

Deep Down ploughs the same furrow with but with a more improvisational and unrestrained approach. As in the concert we saw, classical elements are juxtaposed with the characteristic wailing chant-like melodies of the West African storyteller while at any moment one of the musicians will veer off into angular or rhythmical improvisation, all held together by the exuberant strumming, plucking and battering of his cello by Ernst Rejseger.  One review summed up the album perfectly:

Deceptive in its blend of folkloric naiveté, structural sophistication and improvisational élan, Deep Down truly sounds like no other recording, as romantic classicism intersects with African culture and jazz-centric improvisation.

Reisjeger/Fraanje/Sylla: Amerigo live

Reisjeger/Fraanje/Sylla: Raykwela live

Encounters on Tour

Encounters on Tour is a short film by Myles O’Reilly that follows Trio Reijseger Fraanje Sylla on tour.

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