The Heritage Blues Orchestra’s triumphant return to the Phil

The Heritage Blues Orchestra’s triumphant return to the Phil

Two years ago, in February 2013, I wrote an adulatory review of a concert at the Liverpool Phil by the Heritage Blues Orchestra.  At the time they were pretty much an unknown quantity in the UK, having only recently released their first album, And Still I Rise.

Last night they were back – and gave a show that like the first was a tour de force, and a tour of the blues in all its historical forms. With some variations, the numbers performed were the same as the last time (I had thought there might be more new material since a second album is imminent). This time the orchestra was an eight-piece, since trumpeter Michel Feugère was absent. Continue reading “The Heritage Blues Orchestra’s triumphant return to the Phil”

Kit Downes Sextet: rising stars of the jazz scene

Kit Downes Trio

Kit Downes Trio

Some rising stars of the British jazz scene displayed their promise before a small but enthusiastic audience at the Capstone Theatre last night.  Top of the bill was the Kit Downes Sextet, described in one review as ‘the hottest property among Britain’s young jazz ensembles’.

Supporting them was the Claire James Trio, three young students from the RNCM in only their second public performance together.  Led by pianist Claire James, with Jim Molyneux on drums and an unnamed bassist, this group showed real promise.  All their numbers were written by Claire, with the exception of an arrangement of Nick Drake’s ‘Northern Sky’, remarkable for its opening passages of scrapes and scratchings on the double bass with Claire reaching into the Steinway to thump the strings.

In jazz circles, pianist Kit Downes is being acclaimed as a rising star. In 2008 he was awarded winner of the BBC Jazz Awards, while his 2009 album Golden, with the Kit Downes Trio, was shortlisted in 2010 for a Mercury Award and has received positive reviews from the national press and jazz reviewers.

He formed the Kit Downes Trio in 2005 with colleagues from the Royal Academy of Music. Since then the band has played at the London Jazz Festival 2008 and 2009, Ronnie Scott’s, and live on BBC Radio 3 Live. The trio’s music is inspired from influences as diverse as Bela Bartok, Bill Frisell, Skip James and Keith Jarrett.

The Trio are: Kit Downes (piano), Calum Gourlay (double bass) and James Maddren (drums).  Last night’s concert featured the Sextet, with the Trio members augmented by Josh Arcoleo on tenor saxophone, James Allsopp on bass clarinet and Adrien Dennefeld playing cello.  The new Kit Downes album, Quiet Tiger, features this expanded lineup on many of its tracks.

The music was excellent and varied, with the Sextet performing several numbers from Quiet Tiger, most strikingly ‘Skip James’, which begins as a quiet, contemplative blues before striding out as a New Orleans second line march.Discussing this track as part of a review of the Quiet Tiger album, Ian Mann writes:

This tune … has been in the trio’s repertoire for some time. Dedicated to a troubled early delta bluesman it’s also a homage to guitarist Bill Frisell, an even greater influence on Downes. Loosely based on blues and gospel forms it’s presented as a near ten minute epic building from a sedate trio opening via a deeply resonant bass solo through Jarrett like piano extemporising to full on band mode. It’s strangely moving with Dennefeld’s cello adding a distinctive haunting quality.

For us, though, the best number of the evening (sadly, not on the album) was ‘Jan Johansson’, named, as Kit explained, for the Swedish jazz pianist acclaimed for a series of albums in the 1960s which married northern European folk tunes to jazz forms.  He died in a car crash in 1968, having produced the Swedish jazz album, Jazz pa svenska (Jazz in Swedish), that has outsold all others. The arrangements are very sparse, consisting only of Johansson’s piano and Georg Riedel’s bass. Johansson is little known outside Scandinavia, and his records are not widely available – I had certainly not heard of him.  But there are several examples of his work – which seems to prefigure music by ECM artists such as Christian Wallumrod, Ketil Bjørnstad and Tord Gustavsen – on YouTube, including this, ‘Visa från Utanmyra’, the opening track from Jazz in Swedish:

And this is Kit Downes and Seb Rochford performing a piece inspired by Johansson who died in a car crash in 1968, and by Esbjorn Svensson who was also inspired by Jan Johansson and sadly also died too early in 2008 in a scuba accident.