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”

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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”

The Kronos Quartet at RNCM: all kinds of music, every which way

The Kronos Quartet at RNCM: all kinds of music, every which way

There was a rare opportunity on Sunday evening to catch the Kronos Quartet in concert at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.  No strangers to the capital, they rarely tour the UK as extensively as they are doing this month.

Kronos may look like a conventional string quartet (since 2013, they have consisted of founder David Harrington on violin; John Sherba, violin; Hank Dutt, viola; and Sunny Yang – the most recent recruit to the group – on cello), but their repertoire and approach to their instruments is far from conventional.

The quartet has been in existence for over 40 years, with only the cello player changing in that time. The eclectic Kronos repertoire draws largely – though far from exclusively – on 20th and 21st century contemporary classical music, and they are renowned for championing new music of all genres and from all parts of the world. All of which was evident in the exciting programme they presented at the RNCM. Before a packed concert hall, the Quartet drew a rapturous reception, and the thunderous applause they got at the close compelled the musicians to return to the stage four times for encores.

Continue reading “The Kronos Quartet at RNCM: all kinds of music, every which way”

Rocking gently: Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal in concert at RNCM

Rocking gently: Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal in concert at RNCM

Last weekend, at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, we were treated to a stunning display of instrumental virtuosity by Ballake Sissoko, kora master from Mali, and Vincent Segal, French conservatory-trained cellist. Since 2009 the pair have recorded three albums together, delicate and lovely conversations between instruments from two classical music traditions. Continue reading “Rocking gently: Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal in concert at RNCM”

Rokia Traore’s rock roots in Manchester

Rokia Traore’s rock roots in Manchester

Rokia Traore

The first time I saw Rokia Traore live was in 2004.  I’d travelled to Oldham to see her perform in the tiny back room of a pub. The night before, in Edinburgh, she had been presented with the BBC Radio 3 World Music Award (Africa section). It was a memorable evening: the intimate setting, an acoustic set with Rokia’s exquisite, breathy vocals  accompanied only by a guy on water calabash and a young woman who joined her on vocals and in some wild dancing.

Monday night’s gig at the Royal Northern College of Music couldn’t have been more different: a large hall, packed with an enthusiastic audience clearly familiar with the five albums that Rokia now has to her name. And the sound: apart from one delicate number during the encores, this was a hard-rocking show.  Currently touring Britain to support her new album Beautiful Africa, Traore has assembled a band that blasts out a driving hard rock  sound, albeit that her songs and elements of the music draw deeply from Malian tradition.

Beautiful Africa is a rock album, celebrated as such by Traore herself. Of late, she has been wedded to the sound of an old Gretsch guitar, a sound unfurled on her gorgeous 2008 album Tchamantché.  On that and the latest CD, Malian n’gouni, classical harp, and kora are blended with the Gretsch, as well as acoustic guitars, layered in staggered rhythms with snares, drum kit, and percussion. On disc, the instrumentation is sparse, contrasting the Gretsch with subtle percussion effects or the n’goni, the tiny, sharp-edged West African lute that has always been a key element of her sound.

In this live performance in Manchester, though, much of that subtlety was lost in a barrage of sixties-style rock guitar riffs. With her Gretsch loud in the mix, Rokia would  repeat a simple guitar figure endlessly through most songs.  Meanwhile, Stefano Pilia rolled out soaring guitar solos reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour – and even threw in a few passages of wah-wah to reinforce the classic rock feel.  That this is the sound Rokia has been pursuing was confirmed in an interview she gave to Pitchfork magazine:

Of course the folk guitar is the one I play very often, but I wanted a more electric sound. Not electric like the hard rock happening today. I wanted something more 1970s, 60s, 50s, and, of course, because of rock, my choice came very quickly to the Gretsch guitar. I tried it on one song and I was really satisfied, and finally all the rest of the album was composed around the sound of the Gretsch.

I do not deny the quality of the musicianship demonstrated at the Manchester show: every member of the band was on top form, from the  female bass guitarist (whose name I did not catch) to drummer Seb Rochford, the brilliant ngoni player Mamah Diabaté, and backing singers Fatim Kouyaté and Bintou Soumbounou. But I have to say that hearing the varied moods of songs from Beautiful Africa and the previous album Tchamantché uniformly steam-hammered by riffy repetitions of heavy electric guitar –  well, I felt something had been lost.  If there had only been some variation, a little space opened up in the aural landscape.

Pitchfork magazine described Traoré’s 2009 record, Tchamantché, as ‘a guitar album of a particularly understated bent…hauntingly spare yet ridiculously well-defined, the timbre and tone of every string presented in perfect resolution’. Here, though, the intricate, delicate instrumentation of songs like ‘Zen’ from Tchamantché and ‘Melancolie’ from the latest album were submerged beneath the attack of the killer guitar riffs.  Though the title might suggest otherwise, ‘Melancolie’ is not a gloomy song, quite the opposite in fact.  But its inspirational sentiments, dedicated to all that brings joy and happiness seemed quite lost in its new arrangement that made me think a little of Bob Dylan machine-gunning his lyrics into oblivion on the live Hard Rain album:

Melancholy dance with me
To the beautiful cadence of my joyful dreams

Melancholy sing with me
The words of happiness
That inspire life in me

Melancholy
Faithful companion
Of my solitude

Melancholy, I don’t want your pain
Whirling in the fissures of my heart
Your tears that tarnish the colours of my soul
I long for laughter that explodes in sparks
Dreams that twirl and poems recite
And I’ll be gentler than the most beautiful of all joys

Melancholy, dance with me
To the beautiful cadence of my dreamed of joys

Melancholy, sing with me
The words of happiness
That inspire life in me

The set consisted entirely of songs from the last two albums – songs such as ‘Sikey’, ‘Ka Moun Ke’, ‘Tuit Tuit’, ‘Kouma’ and the title track from Beautiful Africa on which Traore addresses the unrest in her Malian homeland with impassioned words sung as wah-wah guitar and ngoni collide.

Although based in Bamako, Traoré has, for her son’s safety, temporarily relocated to Paris due to the current conflict in Mali.  It’s impossible for a musician from Mali to make a record today without referencing the terrible chaos and violence that has blighted the once-peaceful country since the beginning of 2012:

Malians, let’s conquer the pride that’s rife within us,
It only leads to pain.
Disrespecting our fellow being only leads to disharmony
These battles in which everyone thinks only of themselves
Bring nothing but destruction
Conflict is no solution, pride is hardly virtuous
Lord, give us wisdom, give us foresight.

Battered, wounded Africa,
Why do you keep the role of the beautiful naive deceived
Yet, my faith does not know failure
More intense than ever,
My faith does not know failure
I love you beautiful Africa
Afrique je t’aime
I love you beautiful Africa
You are beautiful Africa
Hei hei héhé hei hé
Conflict is no solution, pride is hardly virtuous
Lord, give us wisdom, give us foresight.

Performing title track from Beautiful Africa, live in Brighton, 6.11.13

The evening had begun with Rokia playing the exquisite guitar figure from ‘Dounia’, the opening track on Tchamantché. When she begins to sing you realise that where most female Malian vocalists tend to sing rather stridently, Rokia’s voice is intimate and almost understated.  She’s the daughter of a Malian diplomat who was posted to the US, Europe, and the Middle East, and studied sociology in Brussels before embarking on her musical career. She sings mainly in her native languages, French and Bambara.

Rokia’s music draws upon Mali’s traditions, but increasingly on American rock as well – music she has listened to throughout her life. In the Pitchfork interview, she explained:

I can’t do Malian traditional music because I don’t have that training. There are some specific schools for that, and I didn’t have the chance to learn how to do pure Malian traditional music – by traditional I mean not just classical, but music that is danced to and listened to in Mali today. I think this position that I have is suitable for me, because the interesting thing for me is to put together all my influences and all my experiences I got through my travelling with my father. My influences are jazz, blues, European classical music; they are rock music and pop music. So many kinds of music.

Her love of jazz – and especially of Billie Holiday – was referenced during the encores when she sang ‘Gloomy Sunday’.  Just before she recorded Tchamantché, Rokia was involved in a project called Billie & Me, with other vocalists, including Dianne Reeves: ‘I love jazz music and blues, and I used to listen to her,’ she told Pitchfork. Her own version of The Man I Love’ ended up on Tchamantché.

Towards the end of the show Rokia remarked, rather grumpily, that we were ‘a quiet audience’. We probably were – it’s not easy to let your hair down when seated in the RNCM’s concert hall.  But then Rokia and the band did a phenomenal job, getting everyone on their feet, clapping and stamping to a Malian-style praise song in which she name-checked and introduced the band members by name – as well as reciting in Bambara what sounded like their artistic cv’s. The number, which last for close on 20 minutes, just kept building momentum and energy, and brought the show to a tumultuous conclusion.

The encores included the aforementioned ‘Gloomy Sunday’ sung acappella, the only song led by Rokia on acoustic guitar, before a final, rousing number with scorching dance moves by Rokia, Fatim Kouyaté and Bintou Soumbounou.

Performing ‘Ka Moun Ke’ from Beautiful Africa, live in Edinburgh, 811.13

Performing ‘Sikey’ from Beautiful Africa, live in Brighton, 6.11.13

My determination is strong
My aim is clear to me.
Without artifice or malice,
Without ever hankering for the other summits
That tower over my own limits.
Accompanied by this unknown destiny,
Borne along by my convictions,
I advance with sure step towards the answers
Scrupulously hidden away
Behind the enigmas of life.

Hé sikey (let’s talk openly!)
Your senseless hate will change nothing.

Closing moments of the show, Edinburgh, 8.11.13

Rokia Traoré: Roots live in 2011

In November and December 2011, Rokia performed a limited series of thirteen acoustic concerts, ‘a magnificent journey where voice and strings made tribute to the Mandingo tradition, a tribute to her own roots’.  This full-length concert video shows a different Rokia Traoré to the one I witnessed the other night in Manchester.  She’s joined by Mamah Diabaté (ngoni), Mamadyba Camara (kora), Habib Sangare (Bolon), Virginia Dembele (chorus), Fatim Kouyate (vocals) and Bintou Soumbounou (chorus).

Rokia Traoré: live at The Festival Les Suds, Arles, August 2013

A full-length performance from the Beautiful Africa tour last summer, with some of the same band members.

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Andy Sheppard’s Trio Libero at RNCM

Trio Libero

Trio Libero is saxophonist Andy Sheppard’s latest band, with Michel Benita on double bass and Seb Rochford on drums.  We had front row seats when we saw them on Saturday as their current tour reached the RNCM in Manchester.

The great thing about live music is that you generally listen far more intensely than at home with a CD on the stereo. It was certainly true in this case: though I had played the Trio’s new CD two or three times in the past two months, in the RNCM’s main theatre I heard things I’d missed at home.  There is a tremendous rapport between these three players whose appearance and demeanour seem, on the face of it, so dissimilar. Sheppard, as always rather reticent with the intros, played soprano and tenor with characteristic style: varying between melodious, mellow passages, soaring solos, and moments of whispery breath-like sax.

Algerian-born Michel Benita, who has been at the heart of the French jazz scene since the 1980s and has played with a multitude of American and European jazz greats, plucked lovely sounds from the bass strings and occasionally created electronic washes of sound triggered by his bowing the strings.He was heard to great effect on ‘The Unconditional Secret’:

Last, but not least, was the extraordinary percussion of Seb Rochford, winner of the BBC Rising Star Jazz award in 2004 and leader of the Mercury-nominated group Polar Bear. The Scottish-born drummer played less of a timekeeping role, instead adding exquisite colour and texture, with the gentlest of brush strokes and delicate stick knocks. Beneath his trademark afro of incredible size, he may look deadpan, even a little shy, but he can also attack the drum kit with verve and energy, as on ‘Slip/Duty’:

The band opened with Libertino, a little Latin-tinged tune that Sheppard circles round, as Benita and Rochford provide an underpinning structure of varied beats and textures.

Other numbers included the spacey ‘Spacewalk’ with a lovely sax intro by Sheppard that sounds a little like ‘In A Silent Way’, ‘Lots Of Stairs’ that featured a solo by Rochford, a Benita/Rochford piece ‘Skin/Kaa’, and an Elvis Costello number, ‘I Want To Vanish’. After a set with no interval, the band returned to play for their encore the lovely, lilting, so short it’s hardly there ‘Whereveryougoigotoo’, followed by ‘Ishidatami’.

Sheppard has explained in interviews how the band came about, and its name was chosen:

Every time you start a new project you have to come up with a new name and it’s often the hardest thing. I was trying to find a name that was going to describe the way I wanted to make music with this band. My initial idea was to get everybody just to improvise and then to record these improvisations. We were working in a very free way as a trio and with libero being the italian the word for free, Trio Libero seemed the perfect name.  I handpicked the musicians in a very natural way. Me and Michel go back a long way although we’ve rarely played with each other for the last twenty years. When I lived in Paris I played with Michel and it’s taken this amount of time to come together again.  I only found out recently but when Seb was younger his mother brought him to one of my gigs. There was a moment in that gig where he thought ‘this is the kind of music I need to be playing’. He said his mum dragged him into the dressing room all embarrassed and years later we’re on the road together.

Trio Mediaeval and Arve Henriksen: exquisite pleasure

Trio Mediaeval and Arve Henriksen: exquisite pleasure

When I phoned the Royal Northern College of Music to book tickets they asked me, ‘where would you like to be seated – on the balcony or in the pool?’  There’s a first time for everything, and this was the first concert I’ve attended in a swimming pool.

The concert – which was undoubtedly one of the most memorable and pleasurable that I’ve ever attended – brought together the haunting sounds of Oslo’s Trio Mediaeval’s female voices with Arve Henriksen’s hushed trumpet and live electronics to perform music both ancient and modern.

The swimming pool was the Victoria Baths, a restored Edwardian ‘water palace’ in in Ardwick, Manchester.  Before the concert Toby Smith, RNCM’s director of performance and programming, had said that the concert was part of an ongoing series which aims to ‘create an immersive experience for the audience’.  There was, thankfully, no water in the pool, but the baths proved to be a perfect venue for the kind of music being played, with acoustics akin to that of a cathedral.

Which was perfect, because Trio Mediaeval’s repertoire features mediaeval devotional music from across Europe, as well as traditional Nordic ballads and songs, and contemporary works written for the ensemble: precisely the musical mix in this concert.  Founded in 1997, Trio Mediaeval have built a passsionate following for their unique repertoire that stems from a deep-rooted knowledge and continuous reinterpretation of the ancient music of religious orders and the folk music of the Nordic lands.

‘Singing doesn’t get more unnervingly beautiful’, wrote Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle, when Trio Mediaeval debuted in San Francisco.  He added, ‘To hear the group’s note-perfect counterpoint – as pristine and inviting as clean, white linens – is to be astonished at what the human voice is capable of’. Certainly, listening to the astonishingly beautiful and spine-tingling sounds that the four musicians conjured last night was an exquisite pleasure.

It is almost impossible to convey the intense sensual experience of this collaboration between Trio Mediaeval and Norwegian trumpet player and electronics wizard Arve Henriksen. It was an unforgettable, spine-tingling performance.  Obviously similar to saxophonist Jan Garbarek’s collaborations with the Hilliard Ensemble, the soundscape created by this partnership has a different feel: a consequence of the female harmonies, the electronic washes and pulses, and the way in which Henriksen extracts all kinds of sounds and textures from the trumpet.

Henriksen, switching between conventional and pocket trumpet, is unique in terms of  the sounds he can coax from his instrument: at times warm and mellow, at others querulous, scratchy, percussive or breathy like a Japanese shakuhachi. Just as remarkable is his ability to extract from his laptop ambient washes of electronic sound that perfectly complemented the Trio’s vocalisations. For their part, too, Trio Mediaeval didn’t just sing – they used hand-chimes and a hardanger fiddle to add delicate variations to the soundscape. One of the high points came as a passage of electronic improvisation and Sami yoik or throat singing by Henriksen led into the as tonishingly violent Norwegian folk song ‘Till, Till Tove’.  Positioned at three corners of the pool, the Trio evoked a type of traditional Norwegian singing known as lokk or lalling – short motifs sung to call home cattle at night on mountain farms, and an effective means of communication over long distances – as Henriksen supplied a deep and urgent electronic pulse.

The collaboration between Trio Mediaeval and Arve Henriksen started in 2007 at the Bergen International Festival where the Trio were artists in residence, and since then they have performed together on several occasions. In the programme notes, the Trio write that:

The presentation of sacred mediaeval music around the world today differs extensively from its original context: performers bring music from around 1000 years ago alive in the present — an act of simultaneous preservation and re-creation. We completely re-contextualize the music: none of it was written to be a part of a concert programme or a recording, and nor was it intended to be performed to an audience (as we understand the term today). Performers of today have completely different backgrounds, Iifestyles and agendas from the original singers and the purpose of performing the music diverges from the mediaeval model on several central points. Today we presume that the men and women who were involved with sacred vocal monophony and polyphony in its original context were convinced of their Christian beliefs and connected to religious establishments. Modern mediaeval music performers and their audience are, unlike our mediaeval forbears, not necessarily religious: in the present anyone can perform sacred mediaeval music whether they are religious or not. We are free from obligations towards a certain system, and there are probably as many individual perspectives on spirituality as there are performers.  Likewise, today’s listeners are free to relate to and connect with spirituality in whatever way feels comfortable to them.

As well as sacred music of the 12th and 13th centuries from England and Italy, the programme was complemented by Swedish and Norwegian folk songs.  Several displayed a characteristic that makes Norwegian vocal folk music distinctive – the tradition of singing without words, a style known as tulling, sulling or tralling in which a sequence of consonants is invented or improvised by the singer. A typical ‘tralling’ sequence might be tra di da di dadi damm di dadndida. This is very similar to the Scottish and Irish tradition known as ‘mouth music’.

One of the traditional songs from Norway was ‘Sven Svane’:

Svend Svane went out on the road one day
and met a wanderer upon his way.
Listen, wanderer, to these questions I ask,
and consider if you might answer them.
What is it that’s rounder than the roundest wheel
and who sings the brightest of all creatures?
What is it that’s whiter than the swan,
and who cries louder than the crane?
The heavens are rounder than the roundest wheel
and the angel sings brightest of all creatures.
The moon is whiter than the swan
and the thunder cries louder than the crane.

Arve Henriksen, too, has been inspired by Norwegian folk music, as well as pursuing explorations in electronics, different treatments of the trumpet, and developing his singing.  He often plays trumpet without a mouthpiece, and uses electronics as a context for the very delicate sounds he coaxes from the horn. Arve has said of these explorations:

An interest in sound-making was there from the beginning of my work with the trumpet. I have spent many hours on developing a warm sound, for instance, but not only that. In my opinion, the trumpet has vast potential for tone and sound variations that we still have not heard. At one point, I think it was in 1988, Nils Petter Molvær lent me a cassette of shakuhachi flute playing. Then things changed.

Henriksen began collecting recordings of Japanese music, with koto, biwa, shakuhachi and other instruments: ‘I let the music ‘ring’ and develop in my head. I was astonished by the sound of this flute…’.  The shakuhachi’s roots in the tradition of Zen Buddhism fascinated the trumpeter, as did its meditative and minimalistic expressive quality.

His first solo CD Sakuteiki (2001) reflected this direction, taking its title from an 11th century Japanese treatise on garden planning. Recorded in various churches selected for their acoustical properties, the album had a sparse, acoustic and spacious feel. Henriksen succeeded in extracting a distinctive shakuhachi sound from his trumpet.

His next CD, Chiaroscuro (2004) saw him exploring the same ethereal sounscapes, accompanied by sampling artist Jan Bang. On his third album, Strjon (2007) shards of Henriksen’s trumpet were overlaid by elegant synthesised sounds. So far, there has been no recorded documentation of the collaboration with Trio Mediaeval, apart from delicate samples from the Trio on his most recent CD, Cartography, most notably on the track ‘Recording Angel’  which they performed last night.

At the end of last night’s performance, the four performers returned to the stage to rapturous applause, and, in an extraordinary encore, Arve Henriksen, trumpet in one hand, conducted the audience to create a full-voiced choir.

What an evening: shivers down the spine, hairs on the back of the neck stuff!

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