Monthly Archives: April 2014

Silent Films at “Playtime”.

Last week I went to the fifth evening on the Playtime series, and my fourth visit. (I missed one… And I’ll miss tonight’s show, too.) It got me thinking why it was that I was so keen to give it my support when, for instance, I only make it to the other Edinburgh small jazz venue every few months (maybe five times a year).

In part it is the musicians. With the same roster of players each week, more or less, it actually feels as if one is watching an evolving process, as they experiment with new ideas and spark off each other. As Rob Adams said after the inaugural gig, “that was four creative people being creative.”

They don’t play standards, so (so far) there is no opportunity for them to coast.

It also means that the audience builds a relationship with the musicians, seeing them change week by week.

This is helped by the small venue. There is no physical barrier between the musicians and the audience, either during their performance or before and after. The musicians recognise and know their audience.

Another reason, of course, is that Playtime is local to me, and it feels like a privilege to have this music so close to home. I want to make sure it keeps going!

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Two of the shows I’ve seen have been “silent” movies, a trio of musicians providing the soundtrack. Thus head been a very interesting experience. Personally, the first – a showing of Nosferatu – worked better than the second – the Cabinet of Dr Cagliari. I think this is largely down to the films rather than jazz accompaniment. Nosferatu is a naturalistic film; Dr Cagliari very studio-bound, with clearly stylised sets. For me this meant that the music and film seemed indivisible for Nosferatu whilst Dr Cagliari almost forced me out of the film, so I was more aware of the music being separated from the film.

It is possible that this was also down to the two scores – both by Graeme Stephen: Cagliari was scored for guitar, drums and saxophone; Nosferatu featured guitar, bass and drums. Cagliari was more jarring, strident, than Nosferatu.

But both have also emphasised quite how important music can be (and almost always is) to the way one feels about any film. In modern cinema, music is an integral part of the production: there are times in the cinema when the music is telling you how to feel.

Watching a film with a live accompaniment, as happened in the early days of cinema feels really special, better perhaps than either would be alone. (I doubt I would have gone to a cinema to see either of these films without the live music.)

Well worth giving it a try!

Gateshead Soup 2: European and US Bands.

The Spring Quartet were one of the big name bands at Gateshead, and one of the reasons I was drawn to the festival this year. The opportunity to see Joe Lovano on sax in a band with Jack DeJohnette on drums, plus new sensation Esperanza Spalding on bass and her usual sideman Leo Genovese on piano seemed to good to pass up.

But it suffered in the way supergroups sometimes do: it just wasn’t as good as its constituent parts. DeJohnette was superb, playing with a light dynamism that was eye opening. It is several years since I had last seen him play, and it was a joy to see him on such form. Worth the trip down to Gateshead for that alone.

I have seen Lovano many times, and sometimes he is invigorating and enthralling, sometimes a little cool and unemotional; unfortunately this time round he was the latter. Maybe it was because the double-tenor line up of Polar Bear earlier in the day had provided a surfeit of reeds; maybe he had an off night, or perhaps the band’s material let him simply go through the motions. Either way, whilst exceptionally competent – of course – in this line up, on this evening, he left me somewhat unengaged. He was good, but not brilliant.

Spalding left me completely cold, I’m afraid. Whilst much of the audience was clearly charmed by her singing, I wasn’t. I’d have preferred her to stick to the bass.

At one point she and Genovese picked up saxophones and joined Lovano in a three sax front line. I don’t know why. With one of the world’s best saxophonists in stage, I’d rather just have focused on him.

Fortunately DeJohnette didn’t indulge in this sax orgy, remaining behind his drum kit and pushing the music along. His playing was superlative throughout – fast but unflashy, loose but precise – an absolute masterclass on modern jazz drumming.

The Spring Quartet were supported by a duo of Marius Neset on saxes and Daniel Herskedal on – tuba. Not instrumentation that would normally appeal, but their set was a delight. Herskedal’s playing was very impressive – more so because it was unexpected. Their music seemed rooted in folk forms. Neset exhibited a Nordic cool common to Norwegian reedsmen – cool, but not unemotional.

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The support slot the following evening was more European jazz, thus time from the Pablo Held trio. Inventive and engaging, they played straight through without pause, one tune merging to another.

The main act was the Bill Frisell trio. Frisell plays in many different formats, cruising and mixing genres; this time, it was the trip behind his “Beautiful Dreamers” CD. I have seen him in many guises in the last few years, and somehow he never fails to bring a smile to my face. The is something just so happy about his playing. To my surprise he was put on in the smaller auditorium, making for a much more intimate experience. It was a lovely gig, a joy from start to finish.

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This was despite not knowing the music. Working with Eyvind Kang on viola and Rudy Royston on drums, Frisell managed to make complex music sound simple. Royston brought a gentle touch to his percussion, sensitive not to overwhelm the guitar and viola. The guitar and viola weaved in between each other.

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The whole thing was joyous from start to finish. Just wonderful. A lovely concert.

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Gateshead Soup 1 – British Bands.

The four gigs I went to at the Gateshead jazz festival this year fell nearly into two: British bands, and U.S. and European bands.

The first gig was one of British bands, so I’ll start there.

First up were the Andrew McCormack-Jason Yarde duo, though they were joined for this gig by the Elysian string quartet. I really like Yarde and McCormack’s playing, either together in various combinations or solo – hearing McCormack’s solo work a while ago was enlightening. But I am sceptical of strings in jazz: for every project that works (Abdullah Ibrahim’s Africa Suite, say, or Colin Towns’ Mask Orchestral), there are many that I think don’t (Bird with strings, or Billie Holliday with strings, or various Ellington excursions, to start with the giants…).

This time, they worked. Sometimes taking the place that a bass would take in most ensembles, sometimes providing melodic, lyrical twists, the string quartet fitted in well with Yarde’s saxes and McCormack’s piano. The strings seemed to tie McCormack down a bit, though, whereas I had hoped they’d free him up and allow him more space to explore.

The strings didn’t dampen Yarde and McCormack’s improvising – indeed, they proved that classical players can improvise in a piece based on notes shouted out by the audience – four notes to start and four notes to finish, the musicians improvising a route between the two. Ok, this might have been a jazz sleight of hand – I have no idea if the notes at the beginning and end were those specified, but it was a lovely journey!

Andrew McCormack was back at the piano after the break, filling the piano stool for the Jean Toussaint Quartet. So Jean Toussaint might not be British, but he has been based in the UK a long time and is so much a part of the British jazz scene that he fits the bill. This was a set of very enjoyable post-bop, maybe less challenging than the set before it, but no less fun.

Toussaint has a warm, engaging tone. Shane Forbes was sitting in on drums, his first gig with the quartet. Coming straight after the duo-plus set, it was fascinating to hear how McCormack adapted to the quartet, the drums and bass giving him freer rein in the rhythmic side. Another lovely gig.

* * *

The following day in the same time slot saw another two British bands. First up was local guitarist Chris Sharkey with his band Shiver, with Andy Champion on bass and Joost Hendricks playing a mix of acoustic and electronic drums. I saw Champion play in an improvising quartet last year, and expected this to be similar. I was very wrong.

This was dark, heavy music. The closest reference point the came to mind, and stuck throughout the set, was King Crimson’s “Red” – in feel if not in substance. Rhythmically complex with a heavy bass sound – Champion playing chords on his electric bass – this sounded post-rock rather than nu-jazz. Indeed, I reckon there weren’t many jazz elements in the music, making the jazz festival – which had commissioned the music – a strange venue. But the sheer force of this band made it an exhilarating experience.

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The trio were joined by guest vocalists Zoe Gilby and John Turrell for a suite of songs about (I think) the de-industrialisation of the north east and the effects on its community. The singers took the music even further from jazz: lyrics of alienation made me think of Tricky (particularly the balance of the two vocalists’ range) and Portishead – again, not musically, but in the images they created and the feel of the music. Intriguing.

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The mood stayed dark for this show’s headliners, Polar Bear. The lights stayed low, too, the band playing in the shadows; saxophonist Pete Wareham had his hat pulled low over his eyes the whole gig, obscuring his face. Wareham and fellow saxophonist Mark Lockheart weaved complex melodic lines, sometimes pulling in the same direction, sometimes pitched against each other.

Behind the saxes, drummer Seb Rochford and bassist Tom Herbert set up a groove and “Leafcutter” John Burton added – well, noise. When I’ve seen Polar Bear before, Burton played a wide variety of instruments, from guitar to blow-up balloons, bringing levity and texture to the band’s sound. This time he stuck to electronics; in recent interviews (such as last week’s Jazz in 3) Rochford and “Leafcutter” John have said the move to a more electronic sound was an explicit decision and a change to the nature of the band.

Using noise as a tool is increasingly common, with Apple Macs making frequent appearances on stage (it always seems to be Macs), often doing little more than making a farting sound. I’m not sure that it adds to the music – personally I find it distracting, getting in the way of aspects that I prefer. (I’m happy to concede this is just a matter of personal taste!)

Polar Bear still create rich, moody, groove-laden soundscapes – had it not been a seated venue, there’d have been dancing. Indeed I think that would have made me enjoy the set even more!

SNJO and Courtney Pine Play Coltrane. Edinburgh, March 2014.

There’s been a bit of a stushie after a critic criticised the Cure for playing three hour long sets. Well the SNJO and Courtney Pine would have given them a run for their money, playing for well over three hours in this tribute to John Coltrane.

There has been a bit of criticism about that too, suggesting that Pine was somewhat overindulgent. Quite possibly. But then so was Coltrane – he famously didn’t know how to stop once he got going (to which Miles Davis is supposed to have said “try taking the fucking horn out of your mouth“…)

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In the past I have sometimes tired of Pine’s pyrotechnics, but here the stream of consciousness flow of notes, together with an extreme display of circular breathing seemed fitting. Some critics described Coltrane as trying to play every note at once, which gave rise to the description of his playing as creating “sheets of sound“, and Pine did the same. His playing was fast and intense, and the audience loved it.

True, I think the audience would have loved it whatever: a combination of SNJO, who always get a good crowd at her Queen’s Hall, and Coltrane, who still seems to inspire devotion amongst his fans, nearly fifty years since his untimely death, seemed a guaranteed winner.

It was interesting to hear how such loved music translated from Coltrane’s small groups into a big band setting. Extremely well, I felt. With the band taking on much of the work done by McCoy Tyner, pianist Steve Hamilton was less to the fore and a bit lost in the mix, but Alyn Cosker more than held his own on drums in inevitable comparisons with Elvin Jones. He was in cracking form, especially when the band dropped out leaving Cosker and Pine to duet – or battle it out.

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Of the ten pieces, only one didn’t work for me, Joe Locke’s reimagining of the almost cliched ballad Naima – and even then Locke should be applauded for doing something different with his material.

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The rest of the material was faster – sometimes much faster. They started off with a ripping Impressions, with Pine blowing furiously from the start, and kept going. And going. And going! The arrangements generally stuck close to the originals, the band providing the support to allow Pine and the other soloists to blow. It was of course a night for the saxes, with Tommy Smith and Konrad Wizsniewski contributing on tenor, and Martin Kershaw and Paul Towndrow soloing on alto. Pine alternated between tenor and soprano. There were also a couple of trumpet solos from Tom McNiven and Lorne Cowieson, and a trombone solo by Chris Grieve. My one quibble from the evening was that with so many great soloists the band, it is a shame they got little opportunity to show their chops.

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I think my favourite piece of the night was a storming version of Afro Blue – but then it’s one of my favourite Coltrane numbers. The only piece in the evening not penned by Coltrane (though the programme didn’t credit Mongo Santamaria), hearing the full band play the central riff for several choruses was exhilarating.

They bravely honoured Acknowledgement and Resolution from A Love Supreme, music which is so loved that it is rarely tackled by other artists. Resolution was arranged by Towndrow, and also featured his alto solo; Impressions was also arranged by an SNJO member, Ryan Quigley, though he wasn’t in the band on this occasion. Tommy Smith contributed The Father, The Son And The Holy Ghost, which closed the show. It is very pleasing to see the SNJO using home grown talent as well as their roster of international arrangers.

Smith and Pine battled on the closer, sometimes with just Cosker powering along behind them. A more free piece which I didn’t know, and apparently minimal arrangement – Smith taking a break from his soloing to direct the band – this worked really well, building up to climax after climax. I think it had to be the last number: after three hours, I don’t know how they could have kept going!

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All in all, an evening of wonderful music, and it was great to hear Pine playing the music of one of his major influences so fluently. Marvellous.

“Playtime”. Edinburgh, March 2014.

I was very pleased when I learned that the Outhouse was hosting a new, weekly jazz night. Not only was it featuring some of my favourite local musicians in an informal setting, even better it’s just up the road from me. My own local jazz club.

Playtime” is every Thursday evening, and I’ve been to each of the three sessions they’ve run so far. (I’m a bit pissed off that I’ll probably miss this week’s, but three out of four ain’t bad.)

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The venue first. The Outhouse is a bar in a mews off Broughton St; the music happens upstairs, in what is effectively a news loft. It doesn’t take many people for it to feel busy – but comfortably so rather than crowded. There are sofas to the side, candles on tables; it feels a bit like someone’s front room.

A front room with an avant garde jazz band.

“Playtime” is well named. The four musicians seem to be taking the opportunity to try some new things and play around with old ideas too. They’re all accomplished band leaders in their own rights. On the first two nights, Martin Kershaw’s saxophones were the lead voice, with Mario Caribe on bass, Tom Bancroft on drums and Graeme Stephen on guitar. I’ve seen them all play, many times – but never in this combination.

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Each member of the band brought tunes to the table, and they ranged from free improvisation through quirky rhythms reminiscent of M-base to some standard swing style – all with a coherent sound. It was great to hear Mario Caribe – a strong, rhythmic player who really swings – playing more freely, but the real surprise for me was the texture brought by Graeme Stephen’s guitar: freed by the lack of a piano, he added a whole new dimension to the music.

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The third night – last Thursday – was a little different. A trio of Stephen, Caribe and Bancroft played Stephen’s score for the 1922 silent movie “Nosferatu”, the original vampire movie, the film playing on the wall being them. This was a very different experience, the music perhaps taking second place to the images on screen, but greatly adding to them too. Stephen’s soundtrack had elements of free music as well as more straight ahead sections: impressionistic music for an expressionistic masterpiece . Bancroft somehow timed his rolls and cymbal crashes perfectly to the action, and the trio really enhanced the melodramatic mood of horror.

I really hope they keep “Playtime” running – having a regular gig in this part of town is a godsend. Stephen said on Thursday that they were planning more silent movies-with-jazz, so presumably they’ve got the next few dates scheduled.

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