I saw Matthew Halsall & The Gondwana Orchestra play the Islington Assembly Hall as part of LJF 2016: I reviewed the show for LondonJazz; and I took some photos, too.
Despite what is clearly a long and illustrious career in Norway, I’m not aware of having heard Rune Klakegg before; which is a pity. Fjon, a CD of his compositions (and one cover) recorded by the large ensemble he set up, is full of rewarding large scale arrangements.
The obvious comparisons are to both Gil Evans and Maria Schneider: the instrumentation and orchestration allow similarly rich, evocative arrangements. Indeed, it was reading of the similarities to Evans and Schneider that first drew my attention to this record. And if you’re going to be influenced, they’re very good influences to have! There’re are also sections which brought to mind some of the work Colin Towns has done with both the HR and NDR big bands.
The brass sounds deep and rich; the saxes crying and plaintive. Rob Waring guests on vibraphone, a voice often lacking from a big band setting – it can sometimes sound lost in the context of an orchestra – but here it is a great addition. The arrangements leave space for both vibes and piano, rather than competing with them.
The one cover is Klakegg’s arrangement of Henry Mancini’s Moon River, with vocals by another guest, Nina Gromstad (who performs with Klakegg in one of his small bands, Lush Life). It is a dark, dislocated arrangement, in parts deconstructed. The vocal is taken pretty straight, but set against the orchestra has even more of a yearning, mournful tone than usual. Klalegg’s solo is disjointed and quirky, as if Monk were tackling the tune..
Klakegg’s tunes have a similar quality: rich and dark; slightly out of kilter, with a touch of melancholic wistfulness. The Evans-like opener, Achille, is a tribute to Debussy, and there are other nods to classical music on the CD, too. The sleeve notes say “fjon” could translate as “snow flurries”; these melodies, though sometimes melting, liner a lot longer. All in all, it’s a collection of lovely music.,
Arild Andersen joined the SNJO a bassist for the night, playing Mingus. The band have played Mingus before – back in 2003, Tommy Smith said – and I loved it then, and I loved it now. And it seemed like they loved it, too. Andersen has played with the orchestra several times, but this time he was (more or less) just the bassist – the music was the star. A special guest bassist, true, and he played some great solos – but then they were celebrating a special bassist.
The first half was brilliant. They warmed up with Song With Orange, not a tune I’m familiar with. An extended solo from Andersen lead into the bass riff to Haitian Fight Song and then it all kicked off. The synchronised riffing from the saxes, trombones and trumpets, band members hollering in between riffs, and some fast and furious solos. Fables Of Faubus followed, more riffs backing the soloists.
Tommy Smith and Arild Andersen played Goodbye Pork Pie Hat largely as a duet. Smith’s solo was remarkably powerful. I’ve been seeing him play regularly since (I think) 1984 (a fund raising gig for his studies at Berklee and a small residency in a bar in Bruntsfield, if you’re interested), and somehow he gets better and better. It’s too easy to take musicians for granted, but once again I was reminded what world class musicians we have in Scotland.
Not just Smith, mind. Soloist after soloist made their mark: Tom McNiven and Tom Walsh in the trumpets, Chris Grieve and Phil O’Malley in the trumpets and a whole slew of saxophonists – Martin Kershaw and Paul Towndrow on altos, with Kershaw also on soprano, and Konrad Wiszniewski belting out bluesy chorus after chorus.
The first set was remarkable: exciting, high energy music. The second set felt a little more sedate, though only in comparison. It opened with Moanin’, a feature for Allon Beauvoisin on baritone. Apart from the ballad Duke Ellington’s Sound Of Love, the other pieces were less well known. For the encore, though, the band were back to full on hollering form for Ecclusiastics. The high point was Wiszniewski and Smith trading choruses, each excited by the other’s performance (Smith a bit cooler, perhaps), until they joined together in a real tenor battle.
A great evening, full of exciting music and solos. And a reminder if one were needed of the compositional skill of Charles Mingus: one reason his tunes work so well in a big band context is that he wrote for a large ensemble, but could only afford small groups. So he just made them sound big, instead.
Mingus, in 1976.
Ryan Quigley brought his quintet to Edinburgh, during their tour to promote their new CD. The band featured Geoff Keezer on piano (sitting in for Steve Hamilton, who appears on the album) and Clarence Penn on drums, both on excellent form. It was a cracking gig, lively, original hard bop.
I wrote briefly about my favourite Edinburgh Jazz Festival gigs for LondonJazz. Here are some of my photos from various EJF gigs I went to.
Magnus Ostrom Band.
Paul Harrison Sugarwork.
Graeme Stephen Quartet.
Laura MacDonald Quartet.
Colin Steele Quintet.
Last month I was able to see Tori Freestone at the 606 Club: I reviewed the gig for LondonJazz. I haven’t been able to process the photos I took becuase my PC blew up, but now it’s fixed, I rather like the pictures.
The Playtime quartet dedicated one of their bi-monthly gigs to the music of Duke Ellington, and it was a pleasure, as I’d expected. Some tunes they played straight, but others were warped and twisted beyond recognition.
They opened with C Jam Blues, which I didn’t realise until the closing notes. But they swung their hearts out, taking it very fast. They then played a tune I didn’t think I knew, Warm Valley, but a quick search on my iPod shows that I have five different versions of it! One if the problems of such a prolific artist as Ellington or maybe I have more music than I can listen to!).
An excellent, straight forward version of Caravan followed, and a similarly straight Sophisticated Lady. They closed the first set with a radical dissection of It Don’t Mean A Thing. Slowed down, they took this in all sorts of directions, with a really different, almost abstract interpretation. This was creative and imaginative. To my ears it sounded like Mingus (who played with Ellington, both in the orchestra and in small groups, and who was greatly influenced by him), maybe bits of Mingus At Antibes (Prayer for Passive Resistance, I think). It was the first number of the evening which didn’t swing!
They did the opposite to Come Sunday in the second half. The original is a slow, sometimes lugubrious piece: it is hard to give it the life it deserves. Whilst keeping the tempo of main melody, the drums and bass played double, maybe triple, time, turning it into a fast, almost bebop tune – as if Bird had played it. It must have been very hard to execute, especially for saxophonist Martin Kershaw. I’m not entirely sure it worked, but at least they didn’t drag!
They also played In A Mellow Tone, Weary Blues (not strictly Ellington, but he and Johnny Hodges played it on the album Back to Back), and In A Sentimental Mood. All were just what one would have wanted.
They closed with Take The A Train, Billy Strayhorn’s theme for the orchestra. Tom Bancroft worked up a real shuffle on the drums, imitating a speeding locomotive. A great finish to a very enjoyable gig. But they only played ten numbers; I hope they’ll have to delve back into Ellington’s rich portfolio for another night or four!
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The following week, saxophonist and clarinetist John Burgess lead a quintet playing the music of W.C. Handy and Spencer Williams. This would have been a gig I’d previously run a mile from: early New Orleans jazz is way out of my normal listening. (And Handy was from Alabama, via Memphis, Shi that’s probably wrong of me anyway.) But that’s actually why I thought I’d give it a go: it’d be different, and even if I didn’t enjoy, I’d learn something.
I did learn something. I learned I enjoyed it a lot. I learned that good music is good music.
I think if it had just been a random selection if New Orleans numbers, I probably wouldn’t have bothered going, but the idea of listening to music by specific, early jazz composers hooked me. And frankly it had to be better than the football. (Indeed it was.)
I was slightly more familiar with Handy, but I hadn’t heard of Spencer Williams before, whose music featured in the first set. It turned out I had actually heard his music, though. He wrote Basin Street Blues and Royal Garden Blues, both long term jazz standards. I’ve got versions of both of them by Ellington, for instance. Other numbers were familiar, too.
W.C. Handy is possibly best known for the classic St Louis Blues – also recorded by Ellington (and many others); the version I know best is Gil Evans’ arrangement on New Bottle, Old Wine, though Evans didn’t change much – a lot of the Gershwin-like touches are there in early versions of the tune, too. Burgess opened the second set with this, maybe to get the hit out of the way early. Handy wrote many other standards. Burgess played several of them – Memphis Blues, Beale Street Blues, Ole Miss Rag.
It would be wrong to call the music authentic: it was made by modern musicians on modern instruments for modern ears, and long long way from Memphis and New Orleans. But it seemed to be played without taking too many liberties. And it was very enjoyable.
What I kept thinking about was the age of this music. All the tunes the band played were originally written around one hundred years ago. That’s not very long in the scheme of things. Jazz has changed immeasurably – gone of in all sorts of directions. But the music Burgess played was definitely, recognisably jazz. It’s like it’s come a long way in a short time, but at the same time hasn’t changed much either.
Trio Red played an intimate gig in Edinburgh last month. With Calum Gourlay depping on bass for an absent Per Zanussi, they played many of the tracks from their new album Lucid Dreamers (which I reviewed for LondonJazz, and liked a lot) as well numbers from their first CD. The music is full of humour, and this comes out live. Tom Bancroft is full of stories and provided the context for the songs and their often surreal titles, and this feeds into their music. They expand the tunes more than they do on the CD, letting things go further. A really fun gig.
I was expecting a trio, but Partikel are now a quartet, the sax-bass-drums line up augmented by violin. Since I’d not seen them before, though I’d heard a couple of numbers, that didn’t make a huge difference because I didn’t really know what to expect. What we got was an evening of impressive, sometimes intense music that was clearly jazz but a lot more, too.
Aided by a suite of electronics at their feet, Duncan Eagle managed to make his saxophones sounds like an organ, and Benet McLean got his violin to sing like a choir. Max Luthert was doing something with a Mac, too, but mostly his bass sounded just like a bass should do.
In fact, the only member who didn’t appear to be electronically enhanced was Eric Ford at the drums, but frankly he didn’t need it: he’s an exciting player as it is, so speedily dexterous that at times I wondered “how’s he doing that?” without being overbearing or brash. (I meant to ask him after the show, but forgot. I think the answer might be multiple pedals.)
With or without the electronics – which never got in the way and were used sparingly – the quartet made a full, rich sound, with lots of texture and light. There seemed to be a distinct dose of prog in the mix (though this might reflect me rather than the band), and violin added both folk and classical influences.
Most of the music was new – they were going into the studio the following week to record their fourth album – though since I didn’t know their work, it didn’t really matter. It was complex without being complicated, covered a range of moods and feelings, and was at times energetic and exciting.
I didn’t have high expectations of this gig. I saw Mike Stern with Bill Evans a couple of years ago, a very enjoyable gig, but I couldn’t imagine how his electric-jazz would translate to a big band. I mean, I thought it’d be fun, but nothing special.
So much for my lack of imagination. Because this gig was very special indeed – just amazing. If I see a better show this year, I will feel myself very lucky indeed.
The band sounded just brilliant. No surprise there. But they worked perfectly with Stern’s electric guitar. Drummer Alyn Cosker was given free rein – I think he’s better jazz-rock than swing drummer (though he didn’t have as much freedom as during the SNJO’s outing of Coltrane material). Bassist Calum Gourlay played electric bass as fluently as he does his acoustic.
The soloists stretched out, but it was the band as a whole that sounded so good. I think a lot of that must be down to the arrangers, too – Geoff Keezer and Florian Ross are regular contributors, but I think there were some new names among the arrangers, as well. Either way, they turned Stern’s tunes into highly crafted big band pieces, showing off the SNJO at its best.
And Stern sounded brilliant, too. He appeared to have a deep respect for the band, a huge understanding, never overshadowing them. He spent most of the evening with a joyous smile on his face.
But perhaps the best moments were the three or four duets he played – short pieces, just Stern and another soloist. They were just magical.
Aside from Marcus Miller’s Splatch, which features Stern on the SNJO album “American Adventure”, I have no idea what tracks were played. I mean, I could copy the list from the programme, but not knowing the music I couldn’t say which is which. Neither Stern nor Tommy Smith said anything between the tunes, as if they didn’t want to waste time talking when they could be playing. One tune flowed into another, Stern playing throughout, as happy accompanying as soloing.
As he left the stage at the end of the second set, Stern exclaimed “well, that was fun!” Yes, Mike, it was. It was very fun indeed!