Monthly Archives: July 2014

Celebrating Lennie Tristano at Edinburgh Jazz Festival. July 2014.

I’m not sure why Edinburgh Jazz Festival programmed a series of gigs around the influential pianist Lennie Tristano, but it was an interesting collection of performances over two gigs (with an extra bonus later week).

The support act on both gigs were the Roby Glod Trio. Taking Tristano’s tunes (and those of his acolytes, Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh) as a starting point, saxophonist Glod lay down dense, fast sheets of notes. Tristano was one of the instigators of “cool jazz”; I found Glod’s two sets distinctly cold: interesting to observe, not part of it at all.

The opposite was true of the Kenny Ellis Trio’s set. With a chameleon-like Brian Kellock on piano and an alto player (whose name I missed…), bassist Ellis brought some warmth back to the proceedings. Both Kellock and the alto player took to their roles, the saxophonist sounding uncannily like Konitz.

Kellock has a remarkable ability to adopt others’ styles whilst sounding completely himself. He brought that skill back to the evening session when he occupied the piano stool for the Martin Kershaw Quintet. They played a wonderful set.

Kershaw on alto was joined by Julian Arguelles on tenor, with Ed Kelly on bass and the ever-excellent Alyn Cosker on drums. The contrast with Glod’s opening set was even more striking, with Kershaw and Arguelles proving Louis Armstrong’s saying that “…Hot can be cool, and cool can be hot…” In the place of Glod’s onslaught, the saxophonists brought a thoughtfulness to play, and produced some lovely music. Where other musicians might produce a torrent of notes, whilst backing a solo by Kershaw, Arguelles played just one over several choruses – a wonderful example of restraint (and circular breathing).

Their subjects – Tristano, Konitz and Marsh – informed their playing but didn’t dominate. They adopted the dynamics of those relationships without inhibiting their own creativity.

This was a lovely gig, with some wonderful music.

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Later in the festival, I caught another gig that by design it accident echoed Kershaw’s quintet. The Pal Nyberg Quartet played two sets featuring Nyberg’s originals – and a host of numbers by Tristano, Konitz and Marsh, all of which had been featured by Kershaw. It has a very different feel, not least because of the instrumentation – guitar, tenor, bass and drums. This made it feel a bit fussy to my ears – enjoyable enough, but string in comparison to Kershaw’s outing.

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Abdullah Ibrahim, Freshlyground and the Mahotella Queens. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2014.

The opening night of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival fell on Mandela Day – celebrated on the anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth – and EJF joined in by lining up three South African act.

The evening opened with, for me, the main draw: legendary pianist Abdullah Ibrahim. I have seen Ibrahim many times over the years in many different settings (he will be playing with his small group, Ekaya, in London Jazz Festival in November); this was Ibrahim in solo, meditative mood. He played snippets of his many compositions straight through, with no gap between tunes and no space for applause. But he didn’t give himself scope to develop the themes, either – the moment he settled into one familiar tune, he moved on to the next. The audience was continually playing catch up.

The music was lovely, but Ibrahim didn’t bring anything new to the keyboard. His set felt like a greatest hits compilation – good to hear, but ultimately unsatisfying. I would have loved to hear him explore his back catalogue in more depth, getting lost in the tunes. And at little more than thirty minutes, this festival opener left me disappointed and feeling a bit short changed.

My mood wasn’t lifted by the next act, either. Freshlyground’s up tempo South African fusion should have moved me – it had all right ingredients – but their exuberance felt forced in the large hall of the Festival Theatre.

So I probably shouldn’t have been in the mood for the Mahotella Queens. Maybe Freshlyground had warmed me up more than I realised; maybe the Queens’ authenticity won me over. Whatever it was, they plucked the right strings and even got me moving in my seat. Many people went further – there was dancing in the aisles (including Freshlyground’s singer, Zolani Mahola, who joined the audience out front).

Dating back fifty years and with two of the original members – the third couldn’t travel on health grounds, her vocal and dancing duties being taking by a youngster – the Mahotella Queens’ blend of township music and dancing was infectious.

Leith Jazz Festival. June 2014.

The Leith Jazz Festival back in June had loads of bands hosted in pubs. So it turned into a bit of a pub crawl – one set by four groups in four pubs in one afternoon. (The festival was spread over two days, but I could only do the Saturday afternoon.) It was great fun – very busy.

I caught John Burgess’ Ugly Bug Ragtime Three – a style of music I would normally avoid, but they proved me wrong: it was very enjoyable, if unchallenging, pub-in-the-afternoon jazz – and Martin Kershaw/Ed Kelly duo – more difficult, perhaps, but rewarding.

I also saw a couple of sets by Colin Steele in different combinations, but I didn’t take any pictures of those…

The Ugly Bug Ragtime Three.

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Martin Kershaw / Ed Kelly.

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The Paul Dunmall Quartet play Coltrane. The Vortex, London, June 2014.

Passing through London, I happened to check out my favourite London jazz venue, and it had an interesting gig coming up; and even better I was staying at a friend’s just around the corner.

And so it was in Monday night I sat down to listen to saxophonist Paul Dunmall lead a tribute to John Coltrane. Actually, not so much a tribute as an adoration: they reinterpreted and restructured Coltrane’s album “Sun Ship”, recorded with the classic quartet in 1965 at the same time as “Transition” but not released until after Trane’s untimely death.

I have Wikipedia to thank for those facts because whilst I have – and love – masses of Coltrane, I don’t have “Sun Ship”. Indeed, I’d never heard of it; I didn’t even know of its existence.

Still, I did know of Paul Dunmall, whose playing I like, and listening to an improvising band playing Coltrane in the Vortex – sounds good to me.

And it did sound good. It was an exhilarating experience. Two tenors – Dunmall joined by Howard Cottle – with Olie Brice on bass and Tony Bianco on drums. No one taking the piano role, then – an interesting diversion from the structure, leaving Bruce and Bianco holding it together whilst the two saxes, together or solo, roared away a multitude of directions.

The one constant was Bianco: Brice would sometimes drop out, leaving Dunmall or Cottle – or both – blowing away backed by drums alone. Bianco thundered on, full of energy throughout the evening (he must have been exhausted).

Dunmall introduced one number as a ballad, but it seemed as fast the others. There was little to differentiate one piece from another – each distinctly Coltrane, despite being completely of the moment, too.

Dunmall announced the last number, Ascension – a coruscating piece from the album of same name which features Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp alongside Coltrane on tenor (and John Tchai on alto, with others on brass). I thought Dunmall was joking: the idea of tackling Ascension after the drive and energy that preceded it seemed crazy. But the familiar, mantra like riff opened, and they were off again.

This was an evening full of powerful, driving music, a tribute to one of jazz’s greats through music that is fifty years old and completely contemporary.

Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at the Lincoln Center Orchestra. The Usher Hall, Edinburgh, June 2014.

Coming the evening after the Neil Cowley Trio in Glasgow, the Jazz the Lincoln Centre Orchestra, lead by trumpet maestro Wynton Marsalis, was a very different affair – it felt studied and slightly academic. The band of sixteen players certainly didn’t build up the same head of stream – the exuberant energy – that just three had the night before.

Ostensibly a celebration of the seventy fifth anniversary of Blue Note records, the two sets largely comprised music taken from huge Blue Note catalogue, but with a couple surprising additions from elsewhere, too.

The performance seemed dominated by two Scottish musicians, one present, the other sadly absent. The latter was local Joe Temperley, who, though scheduled to play, hadn’t been able to make trip from his adopted home the USA. Marsalis told the audience that he had asked Temperley what the band should play that night, and that determined the opening and closing numbers.

The surprise guest – very much present – was Scottish violinist Nicola Bernedetti, who played two pieces from Marsalis’ long work “Blood on the Fields”. It was a coup by Marsalis, and one much appreciated by the audience (including me) – Bernedetti is a favourite with Scottish music lovers as well as being a worldwide star. But last time I saw JALCO play, they had featured some local (London) jazz musicians, and I thought it was a pity that they hadn’t invited some players from the thriving Scottish jazz scene along. It might have introduced the sell-out crowd to some musicians they might not ordinarily see.

The Blue Note music featured was mostly from the classic period of the late 1950s and early 1960s. There is a wide repertoire to choose from, but in the whole they shied away from the more popular or obvious choices. There were pieces by Jackie McLean, Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, and a couple by the recently deceased Horace Silver, amongst others. But no Thelonious Monk, for instance – one of the major figures of twentieth century music who released some major recordings on Blue Note.

The orchestrations seemed a little too reverent, taking the originals as the way the tunes should be played, rather than the starting off point for musical explorations. The arrangement of Sidney Bechet’s “Weary Blues” was the most respectful of all – rather than featuring the whole orchestra, it was arranged for a septet, and sounded like a reproduction instead of a modern interpretation of a pre-war classic. It felt somewhat of a waste – I wondered what “Old Wine”-period Gil Evans might have made of it. It was disappointing that it was this tune that got most applause, prior to Bernedetti’s surprise appearance.

The closing number of the second set was a very respectful and beautiful rendition the finale to Duke Ellington’s “Black, Brown and Beige” suite. This suited the orchestra’s feeling precisely. When Marsalis announced that they’d be closing with an Ellington piece – Temperley’s suggestion – I hoped that they’d commissioned arrangement of a tune from “Money Jungle”, Duke’s Blue Note collaboration with Charles Mingus and Max Roach. But this was better – rich and luscious with exquisite playing, capturing the mood and style the original.

Konrad Wiszniewski Quartet. Edinburgh, June 2014.

To start with, this was a really enjoyable gig in an intimate venue where, for once, the band weren’t drowned out by chattering drinkers. Perhaps all the students had exams the next day.

Playing music from his new CD – though only a download was available at the gig! – Wiszniewski (or “Konrad… Konrad” as Courtney Pine called him at a recent SNJO gig) lead this new band through some muscular playing as if they’d been playing together for ages. Apparently the opposite was true – I was told drummer Alyn Cosker saw the music for the first time only hours before the gig.

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Whilst it was clearly Wiszniewski’s band, it was the contributions by Cosker and Wiszniewski’s regular pianist Euan Stevenson that really stood out. The two of them seemed to know exactly how to support each other, and Wiszniewski. This isn’t to diminish the input of bassist Mario Caribe, whom I’ve seen regularly recently in the “Playtime“sessions – this quartet felt very well balanced, Caribe bringing a deft, light touch and wonderful dose of swing.

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Together, they blew up a storm. Technically adept, Wiszniewski didn’t use technique for technique’s sake: he could match any saxophonist for speed, but never seemed to play notes just to fill the space. Playing more soprano than I’d expected, his tunes and solos on both tenor and soprano were lyrical and entertaining.

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In the intimate, and unusually quiet, surroundings of the JazzBar, this was an evening of exciting, recuperating music. The quartet seemed completely settled despite being new to the music, and I hope Wiszniewski can keep them together as a regular outfit – I’d love to see them play again!

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