Tag Archives: Andrew McCormack

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.

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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!

“Now’s the Time!”: Denys Baptiste. Edinburgh, October 2013.

Denys Baptiste played his new suite, Now’s the Time, for only the second time on Monday night; it is an extended, complex and ambitious piece for jazz orchestra and chorus that made demands of both the players and the audience. It had moments of passion and brilliance, but was slightly marred by teething problems and the unforgiving environment of the Usher Hall.

Like Baptiste’s earlier suite, Let Freedom Ring, which made up the second half of this compelling concert, Now’s the Time was composed in response to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream…” speech. Let Freedom Ring was written to celebrate the speeches fortieth anniversary; Now’s the Time its fiftieth. As Baptiste said in his introduction, the world was possibly in a worse place than it was ten years ago, but his music caught an optimism for the future.

I have heard musicians argue persuasively the the blues, and the jazz it gave rise to, are inextricably linked to politics. Improvisation is an expression of freedom, and repressive regimes have repeatedly tried to suppress jazz. Certainly jazz musicians played a big role of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, and free-jazz came out as desire for both musical and political freedom. The two suites played tonight are clearly political in their inception, which only adds to their power.

As with its companion piece, Now’s the Time was accompanied by spoken word, the poet Lemm Sissay making videos for each of the four movements. The videos worked well, but his voice overwhelmed the orchestra. For much of the time, the piano and bass were barely audible, a real shame when they are played by musicians of the calibre of Gary Crosby and Andrew McCormack. It took a while for the string section – two violins and two cellos – to settle in the mix too.

But the music was great. Each movement was presaged by the 60-odd members of a local community chorus singing spirituals or protest songs, and they really entered into the spirit of it. Their first tune, a spiritual, raised the hairs on my neck, and set the tone for the whole suite. It took the first orchestral piece for the players to find their feet; for the second, “Now’s the Time”, they stretched out as bit: it had a real bebop feel to it, and quoted sparingly from the bebop tune of the same name. The final section worked best, as if it all came together. The orchestra riffed simply behind a sequence of soloists, each upping the ante for a fine finale.

It will be interesting to see how the suite develops, both with musicians’ and audiences’ familiarity. At well over an hour, I felt it could safely be trimmed a bit, but I hope it is recorded sometime soon: I’d love to hear it again.

The second half of the concert was the more familiar music of Let Freedom Ring, expanded for the strings and chorus. The singers had little to do until the eponymous third part, but here they were very effective: hearing sixty people chant let freedom ring! sends a powerful message, and their singing in the final section, “Free at Last”, as positively moving. When Denys got the audience to join in as well, the effect was spine-tingling.

For this suite, the poetry was provided by Ben Okri, and it fitted better with the music, perhaps because I knew where it was coming. The visuals worked well, too – footage of civil rights abuses in USA in the fifties and sixties (including some heart-rending images) , followed by protests (in particular the “Great March on Washington” where Dr King made his famous speech); and then some more recent footage of civil rights violations and protests – anti-capitalism and anti-austerity marches, the Occupy movement, the Tahrir Square protests, anti-fascism marches in Greece, the Turkish Gezi Park demonstrations – all emphasing Baptiste’s notion of the currency of the feelings expressed in the music.

The final section, “Free At Last”, was a tour de force. Featuring an exquisite piccato cello solo, and a lovely piano solo, Nathaniel Facey then took a long alto solo, set against the chanting of the choir, which lead to a final solo by Baptiste. Then he got everyone chanting, “free at last!” At the end of the concert, after he had introduced the band – it took a while, it’s a BIG band, he lead the orchestra off the stage; as he did so, some of the band started the riff again, and the choir and audience joined in. Powerful stuff indeed.

Jazz In The Round. London, January 2012.

The Cockpit Theatre in London has been hosting a new, monthly jazz night, hosted and (I think) curated by Jez Nelson, called Jazz in the Round – because the audience sit on all sides. A square rather than a round, but hey.

This makes it a pretty intimate venue – it seats about 200, but it feels much smaller. That said, it is a theatre rather than a club: it has a different, distinct feel. Nelson has a specific agenda, too – to mix things up. he aims for each event to have both familiar and less familiar names; he doesn’t expect everybody to like it all.

For three bands a night, he charges only £7, all of which apparently goes to the musicians. (Personally I don’t understand why they don’t set the price to £10 – I bet they’d get the same number of people paying, and the musicians would get more money. I doubt anyone would object to paying less than the price of a pint of beer more.) One of the bands is a solo artist.

Strangely, there are no encores.

By chance, I’ve reviewed both nights for the LondonJazz blog. The first evening I bumped into Sebastian, who runs LondonJazz, who couldn’t stay and asked me if I could put something together; the second, I’d been tweeting about the gig, and Sebastian again asked if I could write another review.

Being in the round means that there are always some musicians who are not facing you; which makes photography a bit of a challenge! It is hard to work out where is the best place to sit, since the different bands face different directions. Someone will always have their back to you. The bands seems to like the set up, though – it is unusual for them to have so much contact with each other and with the audience.

The first Jazz in the Round featured Blacktop – Steve Williamson on saxes, Orphy Robinson on vibes and Pat Thomas on keyboards and electroncs. Free improvisation – pretty exciting, one-off and original. Plus wacky electronic noises…

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The second night had a beautiful solo set by pianist Andrew McCormack, and then the somewhat bizarre – but very exciting – Sons of Kemet, featuring Shabaka Hutchins on saxes, Oren Marshall on tuba and Seb Rochford on drums… and Tom Skinner on drums! (The first night had not one drummer; they were clearly trying to go two better.) Amazing, but pretty hard to describe music.

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Colin Towns’ Mask Orchestra. London, August 2010.

Over a month ago, I went to one of the best gigs of the year so far. I’ve been meaning to write about ever since, but other things seemed to get in the way…

The gig was Colin Towns’ Mask Orchestra, the final night of Ronnie Scott’s celebration of British jazz. The Denys Baptiste Quartet were on first, and they played an excellent set of new tunes – some fine playing by all concerned, with great solos by pianist Andrew McCormack and Baptiste. They played some very enjoyable music. Baptiste has lots of ideas and an interest in science and complexity: one number was called Fractal Realms, another Quantum Sax. Schrodinger’s sax, perhaps…

In some ways, though, it was a shame that Baptiste was supporting Colin Towns: as far as I was concerned, it was very much Towns’ night. Towns’ 18 piece Mask Orchestra were crammed onto the stage, with Towns conducting from the front row of the audience together with some of the saxes.

It was an all-star band, featuring some of the best of British jazz, including Guy Barker and Henry Lowther on trumpets, and Alan Skidmore, Nigel Hitchcock and Julian Siegel on saxes. Siegel played a lot of baritone, producing a beautiful tone.

Towns writing and arranging is unique – the rich soundscapes he creates sound like no other composer: the standard yardsticks for big band writing don’t apply.

Much of the set was taken up with a suite based around themes from Kurt Weill – lots of “Mack the Knife” and “September Song”, but twisted and bent by Towns. He told a story about how he’d missed a call from his mentor, and by the time he could get back to him, Johnny Dankworth had died; he dedicated the suite to Dankworth.

The band made a glorious sound, lots of brass and saxes. On a hot summer’s evening, this was powerful music: the band gave it their all. Through it all, Stephan Maass’ energetic percussion powered away, bring a strand of continuity.

A rare outing for Towns’ orchestra, and a truly great gig.