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”

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

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.

See also

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!

See also

Gwilym Simcock’s supergroup at RNCM

Last night we returned to one of our favourite music venues – Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music – for the main event of this year’s Manchester Jazz Festival.  The new Anglo-American quartet that seems to go under no other name than the ungainly Simcock-Walker-Swallow-Nussbaum was assembled by Gwilym Simcock and Mike Walker, both musicians with strong Mancunian associations.

Pianist Gwilym Simcock studied music at Chetham’s School of Music and performed at the RNCM often during his time in Manchester, while guitarist Mike Walker was born in Salford and has been a regular on the northwest jazz scene since the 1980s, at the same time playing with international luminaries and building a reputation as an inventive and versatile jazz guitarist.  The lineup with Swallow and Nussbaum is very new – they only played their first date in May this year.  Mike and Gwilym had met several times during Gwilym’s time in Manchester but had never got round to playing together. The idea germinated in 2008 when Gwilym met Swallow and Nussbaum whilst they were in the UK. Steve Swallow has played bass with many of the jazz greats, particularly Carla Bley. Adam Nussbaum (drums) has also collaborated with a long list of musicians, including Sonny Rollins and Dave Liebman, and he and Steve Swallow have played together on a whole range of projects.

It was difficult to believe that the partnership was so new – the four musicians played dazzling, melodically enthralling music as if they had been together for years, with both the music and the on-stage chemistry exhibiting great wit and good humour. The repertoire consisted mainly of tunes from Simcock and Walker, but with Nussbaum and Swallow also contributing numbers.

Walker’s ‘The Clockmaker’, was introduced by his own solo guitar and contained fine solos from himself, Swallow and Simcock, while the latter introduced ‘You Won’t Be Around To See It’ as a piece borrowing from the methods used on Swallow’s Real Book solo album to subvert the chord changes of the standard ‘Softly As In A Morning Sunrise’.  It was an exciting composition with rock-influenced guitar and a sparkling piano solo.

‘Laugh Lines’ was good humoured and witty, with dazzling,  guitar/piano interplay.

Nussbaum’s atmospheric ‘We Three’ segued into Simcock’s ‘Play The Game’.

Walker’s beautiful ‘When You Hold Her’ began with Simcock providing a delicate piano intro, but later Walker’s soaring guitar solo took us into Hendrix territory.

‘Wallenda’s Last Stand’ was dedicated by Mike Walker to the high-wire walker Karl Wallenda, who fell at the age of 74 on his last walk in Buenos Aires. This number featured Simcock on melodica with Nussbaum on hand drums,  evoking the tango rhythms of Buenos Aires.

Nussbaum’s blues ‘Hey, Pretty Baby’ was an outstanding exploration of blues structures, featuring a greatl drum intro and wailing blues guitar from Walker. This was followed by a rendition of Steve Swallow’s composition ‘Ladies In Mercedes’.

For the encore, the band offered the quiet and simply titled ‘Gwil’s Tune’, a lilting melody to send us home to our beds, said Gwilym.

The London Jazz review said, after the second night of the tour:

Mike Walker ‘s playing, for those who don’t know it, is one of the greatest joys of British jazz. There’s a capacity to play on the borders of silence, and yet with an astonishing range of colour. And to build from there, organically to full-on Hendrix. He never disappoints.

Complete fluidity of movement around the drum kit seems like second nature to Adam Nussbaum. He is some sort of ideal of the creative drummer who brings astonishing vitality and freedom to the sound. I find Steve Swallow ‘s subtle, gentle presence, his economy of movement and language completely and consistently mesmerising.

Gwilym Simcock also is in his element in this group. He had spoken to me a few weeks ago about bringing together four very distinct and individual personalities and sounds, and was enthused, even thrilled by the prospect of the collective sound which would emerge. I particularly enjoyed his Corea-like excursions on Mike Walker’s composition ‘Laughlines’, but there was much else to enjoy.

The Guardian’s John Fordham reviewed them at Ronnie Scott’s in May:

Jazz supergroups are volatile concoctions, bespoke teams of virtuosi often just getting in each other’s way. But the Anglo-US quartet built from scratch this week around the untried partnership of pianist Gwilym Simcock and Salford guitarist Mike Walker, with Americans Steve Swallow on bass and Adam Nussbaum on drums, fulfilled all its promise – and then some.

With everything from prize-winning albums to Prom concerts under his belt, Simcock’s international stature is secure – but Mike Walker, though almost two decades older, has been a peripheral figure. Yet Walker’s contribution to this ensemble was nothing short of sensational, through plenty of quiet but compellingly lyrical music, as well as some postbop gallops and a spectacular roaring blues.

Set list

Clockmaker (Walker)
Laugh Lines (Walker)
You Won’t Be Around To See It (Simcock)
We Three(Nussbaum)
Plainsong (Simcock)

Wallenda’s Last Stand (Walker)
Play The Game (Simcock)
Hey, Pretty Baby (Nussbaum)
When You Hold Her (Walker)
Ladies In Mercedes (Swallow)

Encore: Gwil’s Tune)


Tomasz Stanko at RNCM

Travelled over to the RNCM last night (alone, unfortunately – R was still feeling rotten) to see the new Tomasz Stanko Quintet. The band features two Finns – pianist Alexi Tuomarila and drummer Olavi Louhivuori – and two Danes, electric guitarist Jakob Bro and bassist Anders Christensen.

Now, I’ve enjoyed his albums – particularly Litania: The Music of Krzysztof Komeda from 1996, and its follow-up, From the Green Hill. But tonight I have to admit I was not engaged. Perhaps I was distracted by Stanko’s decidedly eccentric appearance – he was wearing what appeared to be high heeled boots with spats, drainpipe trousers and a loud check tweed jacket, all topped off with a black pork-pie hat.

But the rest of the audience seemed well-pleased with the short set (80 minutes, one encore) and applauded enthusiastically. This was the Manchester Evening News review of the concert:

Veteran Polish trumpeter Stanko is in the front rank of European jazz musicians but he has been a rare visitor to the UK. His current tour has therefore been eagerly awaited and this superlative performance fully justified the build-up. There were unmistakable touches of Miles Davis in his bittersweet lyricism and his open-ended ensemble sound had echoes of the American giant’s 1960s quintet. But Stanko demonstrated that he was very much his own man with a distinctive style combining short, stabbing phrases with stratospheric cadenzas.

His compositions, too, were full of unexpected twists and turns though it was the graceful ballad Song For Sarah that provided the most memorable melody. Stanko’s young accompanists are a successful trio in their own right but mesh seamlessly with the trumpeters methodology.

Pianist Marcin Wasilewski’s exquisite touch and unfailing inventiveness were highlighted in a series of dazzling solos. His bond with bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz and drummer Michal Miskiewicz allowed both to showcase their individual flair without disturbing the rhythmic balance.

Contemporary jazz does not get much better than this.

I was probably having an off night. Certainly clips on YouTube, from the Quintet’s new album, Dark Eyes, are  atmospheric  in a  lyrical and melancholy sort of way,with delicate and sensitive contributions from band members.

Update, 17 November.

This was The Guardian review of the Stanko Quintet at the London Jazz Festival two nights ago:

Tomasz Stanko is the quintessential European jazz star in his pork-pie hat, snazzy suit and elevated shoes. With a radio mic on the bell of his trumpet, he’s free to stalk the stage of a captivated, sold-out QEH. He has a sure touch when it comes to recruiting young talent, too. His all-Polish quartet was one of the great success stories of the past decade, and he looks set to repeat that success with an even younger quintet.

Stanko’s music is always packed with good writing, including striking tunes such as Samba Nova and Grand Central, and beautiful pieces such as Dirge for Europe and Rosemary’s Baby (the encore). Yet his band is fearless: happy to blow freely, create spacious soundscapes or just stick to a groove when the moment is right. The whole palette of contemporary jazz is under their fingers.

Stanko’s open trumpet sound is very special: masculine, sensitive, spare, elegant – all the adjectives applied to Miles Davis come out of the drawer when he’s in town. It’s not so much that he sounds like Davis, but that he fills that Miles-shaped void.

And this video appeared on YouTube, filmed from on stage:

Tord Gustavsen Ensemble at RNCM

For the past 18 months or so, the music of the Tord Gustavsen Trio has been played pretty constantly in our household – especially The Ground, with its exquisite opening track, ‘Tears Transforming’, the album that, amazingly, reached the top of the Norwegian album charts within a fortnight of its release. So, it was with great anticipation that we headed to the RNCM  last night for the concert by the Tord Gustavsen Ensemble, a larger outfit that on this UK tour consists of  Tord Gustavsen (piano), Tore Brunborg (tenor and soprano saxophones), Mats Eilertsen (double-bass), Jarle Vespestad (drums).

We were not disappointed. This was only the fourth time this quartet had performed live, though you wouldn’t have known it from their fluent interplay on this luminously beautiful lyrical music. Apparently, When Miles Davis was recording Sketches of Spain with Gil Evans, he said of of Rodrigo’s Arajuez Adagio, ‘that melody is so strong that the softer you play it the stronger it gets…’ Tord Gustavsen’s melodies are like that.

They began with the most beautiful of those melodies, ‘Tears Transforming’, and followed it with ‘ The Child Within’, from the Ensemble’s new album, Restored, Returned. Another tune, ‘Where We Went’ featured an exquisite, delicate drum solo by drummer Jarle Vespestad.

This is the Herald Scotland review of the Ensemble’s Edinburgh gig on the 18th:

It’s no surprise that Tord Gustavsen introduces his sound engineer as the fifth member of his ensemble. The pristine sound quality that comes as standard with the label Gustavsen records for, ECM, and micro adjustments such as the dash of reverb introduced on the drums at strategic moments play a large part in the Norwegian pianist’s concert presentation. In fact, there’s probably a whole review to be written about the tonal properties each musician entrusts to the mixing desk and the contrast between the comparatively imposing physical presence of double bassist Mats Eilertsen and the world’s quietest drummer, Jarle Vespestad. But these are bound up in a beautiful musical end product that communicates a wealth of ideas and champions celebration as much as melancholy and yearning. It just doesn’t make a big fuss about it.

In saxophonist Tore Brunborg, Gustavsen has a kindred spirit who expands the pianist’s palette while paying attention to melodic refinement and a sense of space. It says much for Brunborg that ‘The Swirl’, with its infectiously loose hipped, laid back boogaloo beat, sounded just as complete without the absent Kristin Asbjornsen’s very individual singing as it does on the ensemble’s new album, Restored, Returned. Gustavsen, though still compact, plays out of himself more in this setting than in his trio, digging deep into his gospel tendencies on a brand new tune and approaching the rhapsodic on the Spanish dance-influenced ‘Where We Went’, the number during which Vespestad, who alternates between sticks and brushes with near-surgical discernment, put forward an emphatic case for, unlikely though it may seem, the drum solo as means of seduction.

Another insightful review – this time, of the Birmingham gig on the 17th –  was this one, by Peter Bacon for thejazzbreakfast:

A friend had voiced moderate concern that the addition of saxophone to Gustavsen’s quiet and subtle music would somehow spoil it – a few notes from Brunborg and such misgivings were dispelled. He manages to combine warmth and richness of tone with precision of articulation in a compelling way. Gustavsen pointed out, in his thejazzbreakfast interview, how all the members of the band, even master drummer Jarle Vespestad, are melodists, and so it is: lines of improvised tunes weaving in and out, whether Eilertsen’s perfectly placed upper register bass counter-melodies, Brunborg’s always lyrical solos, Vespestad’s cymbal scrapes and tom-tom phrases, or the leader’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of freshly created songs.

As on the new album, the concert was woven through with what Gustavsen calls “left over lullabies”, gentle, calming music in one sense though with the knowledge of experience behind it to suggest that the day before this call to sleep has not been without its rigours and difficulties.

Tord Gustavsen Trio: Tears Transforming

Tord Gustavsen Trio: Still There (live, 2007)

Mathias Eick Quartet at RNCM

To Manchester tonight to see the Mathias Eick Quartet at RNCM. Despite being up at 4:30 on a Norwegian morning to fly to Manchester for this, the opening gig of their tour, the Quartet were in fine fettle. Mathias was evidently surprised by the size of the turnout – but the stir surrounding his first album for ECM as leader should explain it. He’s a multi-instrumentalist who wasn’t averse to adding complex beats on a pair of drums, and at one point joining Andreas Ulvo at the grand piano to play the upper register – and keyboards – while Ulvo played the lower register.

The Quartet performed most of the album, The Door, as well as additional songs, including one composed at a recording session in Finland. Mathias commented on the sparse, utilitarian nature of the song titles, saying they simply reflected the time or place where they were composed. Despite critics commenting on the metaphorical aptness of the The Door as a title for the album (‘the door to my inner self’, etc), Mathias said it was just that when he’d finished composing the title song, what he was looking at was – the door. Brought back for a second encore Mathias played a superb, slowed-down solo ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’.

Could this band be the new E.S.T.?

Programme notes

Mathias Eick trumpet
Andreas Ulvo piano
Audun Erlien bass
Rune Arnesen drums

‘With his warm tane, selfless allegiance ta the collective, and personal nexus of lyrical form and freedom, Eick is the most important trumpeter ta emerge from the Scandinavian scene since Henriksen and Molvr.’
John Kelman, All About Jazz

‘It’s rare to hear instrumental music that is almost poetic in its construction. Trumpeter Mathias Eick has a sound that gently beckons and, like softly spoken conversation, you instinctively lean forward to catch every gesture’.
Stuart Nicholson, Observer Music Monthly

Norway continues to astonish the world with its amazing contribution to music of all genres, with Mathias Eick, aged 28, being one of the latest talents to emerge from the burgeoning Norwegian jazz scene. He joins an already glittering galaxy of compatriots known for their outstanding musicianship and creativity. Names such as Jan Garbarek, Arild Andersen, Terje Rypdal, Awe Henriksen, Nils Petter Molvaer and Tord Gustavsen spring to mind, to name but a few.
But it is Eick’s particular achievements and sound that resulted in him receiving the International Jazz Award for New Talent in 2007. He has also been nominated for the Norwegian equivalent of a Grammy for his album The Door. Eick is a multi-instrumentalist. His first instrument is trumpet but he also plays double bass, vibraphone, piano and guitar and – to use his own words, “anything needed”.

He has worked with many bands and a diversity of musicians from Chick Corea and Pat Metheny with the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, to the Norwegian rock group Jaga Jazzist of which he was a co-founder and where his multi-instrumentalism has been very much a part of the band’s sound.  Recently, he has been frontlining and touring world-wide with the highly acclaimed Manu Katche band, whilst at the other end of the scale he has been working with Finnish harpist/pianist/composer Iro Haarla and her stunningly beautiful quintet.

Although no newcomer to the prestigious ECM label, where he has worked with guitarist Jacob Young on two recordings, as well as with drummer Manu Katche and with Iro Haarla, it was in 2008 that Eick made his debut recording as a leader on The Door, an album which reveals not only an outstanding musician but also a gifted composer. His spacious, atmospheric, and beautifully lyrical tunes have an unpredictable shifting edge; this is interesting music which can unexpectedly challenge before finally returning the listener to an original melodic theme.

Mathias Eick cites Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Clifford Brown and Kenny Wheeler as influences, but his subtle, pure, and crystalline sound is distinctively and undeniably his own. Already a remarkably mature player, it has been noted by more than one critic that this young Norwegian is someone we will be hearing about much more in the future.

Mathias Eick at Northsea Jazz 2007

Frøy Aagre feat. Mathias Eick at Canal Street 08

Frøy Aagre- sax, Mathias Eick- trp, Andreas Ulvo-piano, Audun Ellingsen-bass, Freddy Wike-drums at Canal Street Jazz Festival, Norway Jul 27th 2008. The tune is called Factory, composed by Frøy Aagre.

Frøy Aagre feat. Mathias Eick at Canal Street 08

Frøy Aagre- sax, Mathias Eick- trp, Andreas Ulvo-piano, Audun Ellingsen-bass, Freddy Wike-drums at Canal Street Jazz Festival, Norway Jul 27th 2008. The tune is called Long Distance, composed by Frøy Aagre.



Last night to RNCM Manchester to see the Guy Barker Jazz Orchestra perform The Amadeus Project. I was a bit trepidatious – kind of expected jazzy improvisations on Mozart themes.  However, the evening was an unqualified joy: the music was all straight-ahead jazz originals by Barker. The first half of the concert was part of a suite based on characters from Mozart operas. The second half was a re-writing of  The Magic Flute in the hard-boiled style of a Mickey Spillane thriller, with narration written by Barker’s friend, the thriller writer Robert Ryan (who appeared onstage to introduce the piece).  After I bought the CD, autographed by Barker.

As well as being an excellent trumpeter, Guy Barker has developed into a fine composer. Here he performed both as soloist and conductor of the band assembled to tour The Amadeus Project, which – as he explained in opening remarks – was the result of commissions in 2006 by San Diego’s Mainly Mozart Festival and BBC Radio 3 (strange coincidence!).

The band were: Guy Barker, Nathan Bray, Tom Rees Roberts, Byron Wallen (trumpet), Baraby Dickinson, Alistair White (trombone), Mark Frost (bass trombone), Rosario Giuliani (alto & soprano sax), Graeme Blevins (tenor sax, clarinet), Per ‘Texas’ Johansson (tenor sax, flute, contrabass clarinet, clarinet), Phil Todd (baritone sax, tuba, flute, piccolo), Jim Watson (piano, organ), Phil Donkin (double bass) and Ralph Salmins (drums).

The first half of the concert was The Amadeus Suite, pieces inspired by characters from Mozart’s operas. The band kicked off with the rousing  ‘Wolfie’, the opening number from the ‘Amadeus Suite’, which showcased their musical strengths: precise ensemble work, with compelling and contrasting solos.

The second half was dZf, described by Guy as a retelling of The Magic Flute in a ‘Jazz Noir’ style, featuring the actor Michael Brandon as narrator. There were fine solos from all the band, particularly alto saxophonist Rosario Giuliani, and the compositions had a cinematic echo. In this piece  Barker’s role as conductor was accentuated – ensuring both musicians and narrator Brandon came in on cue and soloist.

dZf was originally commissioned for Radio 3’s Jazz Line-Up, its inspiration a Johnny Staccato-type update, written by Robert Ryan, of the plot of Mozart’s last opera, The Magic Flute (extraordinary storyline!).

Dave Gelly wrote in the Observer:

Not content with being probably the greatest trumpet virtuoso that British jazz has ever produced, Guy Barker has grown into a quite phenomenal composer. The first disc of this two-CD set, entitled ‘dZf’, consists of a re-telling of The Magic Flute as a film noir tale, with Michael Brandon narrating Robert Ryan’s sparse, laconic script. Barker’s atmospheric score simply bursts with melodic and orchestral invention, his own sizzling trumpet setting the pace. The second disc (‘The Amadeus Suite’) contains a set of equally impressive pieces inspired by characters from Mozart operas.

BBC review:

This is British jazz with all its virtues and a few of its faults. It’s big, brassy and confident. If you like flutes and Hammond organs you’ve got ’em. If you like clarinets and trombones you’ll find them too. While it’s slightly rough round the edges in a couple of places, you can’t fault its ambition, creativity or sheer rumbustiousness.

Barker’s own playing throughout is unflagging, technically impeccable and shows a mastery of all styles and tones. All in all, it’s impressive.

John Fordham in The Guardian wrote:

Guy Barker is a world-class postbop trumpeter, but his composing skills have only recently blossomed. This Mozart-inspired double-CD features a work called dZf, which he calls a “jazz-noir” rumination on The Magic Flute, and a suite inspired by characters from across the operas. But it’s cinematically evocative contemporary jazz, not jazz/classical crossover music, with dZf framing a thriller story by Robert Ryan, narrated in downbeat gumshoe tones by Michael Brandon. Fire-breathing Italian postbop saxophonist Rosario Giuliani is also a key component, alongside Barker in front of a cracking UK big band. Sometimes the music recalls the pumping contrapuntal jostling of a Colin Towns orchestra, sometimes a Ray Charles R&B band, sometimes the slinky mean-streets insinuations of the 1940s soundtracks Barker loves – and there are also episodes of shimmering delicacy. The Amadeus Suite has the edge, for its broader idiomatic references and because the spoken storyline of dZf is somewhat cheesy. But Barker’s trumpet blazes over all the music, and the writing is consistently terrific.