Monthly Archives: November 2009

Carla, Carla, Carla: The Lost Chords. London Jazz Festival, November 2009.

I think I shall have to come clean right up front. This was my gig of the London Jazz Festival. I hadn’t expected it to be – I thought it would be good, and I like Carla Bley’s, Steve Swallow’s and Andy Sheppard’s playing – but I didn’t think it would be that good. And then better still.

So now I have to justify this: just what was it that made it so good? I think it was because Bley, Swallow and Sheppard – who with drummer Billy Drummod make up the Lost Chords (great name, great band…) – were all playing at the top of their game, and seemed to understand each other perfectly. Bley, Swallow and Sheppard have been playing together as a trio for many years – the lovely album “Songs With Legs” dates from the early 1990s – and this quartet has been playing together for five years or so. They seem to have developed a creative intuition, the whole very much greater than the sum.

In the pre-concert talk, Bley said that she didn’t think much of herself as a pianist. She did herself a disservice: she was excellent throughout this concert. Her playing is very understated: several times during the set, I was reminded of Thelonious Monk’s playing. The Lost Chords opened with a long, almost-suite based on (believe it or not) Three Blind Mice – but that that’s three blind mice as if imagined by Monk. Bley makes every space and pause count.

Later on, the band played an arrangement of Monk’s Mysterioso, where Bley had laid her own tune over the basic melody, producing a wholly new composition.

It was the first time in a long while that I had heard Andy Sheppard – indeed, I think the last time must have been with Bley and Swallow about ten years ago in Edinburgh. His playing was a revelation: his playing has great confidence. He plays with a very clean tone; Bley said earlier that she first worked with Sheppard because she wanted a saxophonist who didn’t try to sound like Coltrane, and whilst he must have been influenced by Coltrane, he has very much his own sound. He played tenor and soprano – he played lots of very long notes on soprano (circular breathing, I’d guess) when other sax players would have seen how many different notes they could squeeze. Sheppard’s minimalist approach was perfectly in keeping with Bley’s piano.

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Swallow is another of Bley’s long-time collaborators. His electric bass playing was very fluid and melodic, becoming a third lead instrument and duetting with Sheppard. Drummond did exactly what he needed to, sometimes being subtly sensitive, others energetic and driving.

There was another feeling I got throughout the concert: I kept hearing echos of Gil Evans. This surprised me, since Evans’ arrangements for big bands are on a very different scale to the Lost Chords quartet. But Bley has done much of her composing for many big bands – her own, Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, way back to George Russell’s orchestra nearly 50 years ago. Seeing her big band play Hackney Empire in the early 1990s (I think this was an edition of her band called the Very Big Carla Bley Band), I recall she said that the arrangement of Goodbye Pork Pie Hat was borrowed from Evans. Swallow co-produced and played on John Scofield’s beautiful album Quiet, and Scofield’s horn arrangements on that always make me think of Gil Evans, too. Joining things up, Sheppard played in Evans’ European touring bands.

This concert was a joy from start to finish, the first finish being another short suite, Lost Chords, the second being a beautiful, slow and mournful encore Útviklingssang. Throughout the concert the music had depth, emotion and delicacy. It was simply gorgeous.

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Branford Marsalis. London Jazz Festival, November 2009.

Monday night at the London Jazz Festival saw saxophonist Branford Marsalis hit town, briefly.

He was preceded by award-winning pianist Robert Mitchell and his trio. They played a short but impressive set – I could have done with more, and I really want to see this band again.

When Branford hit the stage, though, the music hit a whole new level. The quartet started off at a cracking pace, pushed ahead by the hyper-active drumming of Julian Faulkner. Pianist Joey Calderazzo was really impressive too – Marsalis let him take long solos, and Calderazzo really shone: there was one ballard where his solo built and built. (I think Branford was off trying to mend his soprano which apparently suffered a prang with a drumstick…)

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But it was Branford’s evening. With Faulkner’s drumming, Calderazzo’s supportive piano and Eric Reavis’ bass, it was hard not to think of Coltrane’s quartet – especially when Marsalis was on soprano. He played lots of long solos, and even though he was laying down streams of notes, his sound remained warm and creative – he didn’t sound too “technical”, a trap some saxplayers fall into. He wasn’t showing off, he was just playing the best he could.

For the encore, Marsalis brought on British pianist (and Radio3 jazz presenter) Julian Joseph for a great version of St Louis Blues. This is such a standard that it must be hard to pull off – everyone in the audience probably has their own, favourite version. (Mine is Gil Evans’ from album “New Bottle, Old Wine.”) I had to stop myself singing along. The band brought their own style to this old number whilst simultaneously playing it straight. Branford’s younger brother Wynton would have felt proud – this was new, exciting music but deeply in the tradition.

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Trumpets. And hats. And three saxophones… Brass Jazz and Tomasz Stanko. London Jazz Festival, November 2009.

First gig of the London Jazz Festival for me was Brass Jaw at the Barbican. A somewhat misshapen saxophone quartet – Paul Towndrow on alto, Konrad Wiszniewski on tenor and Allon Beauvoisin on baritone – they also feature Ryan Quigley on trumpet. I had seen all these musicians before, but I had somehow missed them in this line up before. Quigley was the man in the hat.

The Barbican was busy, lots of people waiting to hear the band play, so there was bemusement when saxophones were heard in the distance: we thought we were in the wrong spot. But the sound got louder, and I realised the band were coming to us. They came up the stairs and moved through the audience. People were surprised – it isn’t often you come face to face with a trumpet bell, and a moving baritone sax isn’t to be messed with!

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Climbing on stage, they proceeded to play a great set, especially that they had battled through stormy seas and a lack of sleep to get there. They mixed standards with originals – Beauvoisin featured on a fine version of Ain’t Necessarily So; he did a great job of keeping the quartet together throughout the gig, taking the bass line and holding them steady.

Perhaps because he had a different sound, trumpeter Quigley stood out. He hits the high notes and plays the showman, too. All three saxophones played well – they all have different styles, so it meshed well.

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More trumpet – and another hat – in the evening when Tomasz Stanko took to the stage at the Queen Elisabeth Hall. With a young quintet featuring electric guitar, he had a wistful, ethereal sound – distinctly European, I’d say. The guitar invites comparisions to mid-1960s Miles – Stanko has a similar tone to Miles, too, and he plays similar runs. Also like Miles, he doesn’t say a word – the music has to stand on its own. His tunes are impressionistic and abstract. His trumpet sound is very clear – European cool perhaps (in contrast to Quigley’s fiery high notes).

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Stanko is the dominant voice in the quintet. The piano loses out a bit to the guitar, which is the second solo instrument, the piano being relegated to rhythm. The coolness in the music means they don’t necessarily connect with the audience, and at times it appeared like they were on autopilot. They still created a lovely, fresh sound.

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