Tag Archives: big band

Rune Klakegg & Scheen Jazzorkester – “Fjon”.

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.,

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Wynton Marsalis and JALCO at Hackney Empire. London, June 2010.

A couple of weeks ago, Wynton Marsalis lead the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra on stage at the esteemed Hackney Empire, bringing the sound of midtown Manhattan to the East End of London.

JALCO had been playing a series of gigs at the Barbican and elsewhere, together with a whole load of educational events, and their visit to the Hackney Empire marked the end of their London residency. The Barbican gigs, featuring different jazz styles each night and a host of local guests, sold out well in advance (I know cos I tried to get tickets…!).

The crowd seemed quite adoring of Wynton and the band, giving them a roaring cheer to welcome them onstage. This last gig was entitled “Modern Jazz Masters”, and Wynton promised music by Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Jackie McLean. We didn’t get any Shorter, but lots of new compositions from members of the band interspersed with their arrangements of tunes by Hancock, McLean (an intricate arrangement of “Appointment in Ghana”), Joe Henderson and Thelonious Monk.

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The orchestra was joined by Jean Toussaint on tenor sax (both he and Marsalis are graduates of the Jazz Messengers’ finishing school), pianist Julian Joseph, vibe player Jim Hart and vocalist Cleveland Watkiss. The calibre of the JALCO’s musicians is such that the guests could have seemed superfluous, but they were given a lot of space in the arrangements and all delivered. Cleveland’s vocal acrobatics sounded great against the orchestral backdrop, and Toussaint’s sax playing was in fine form, but for me Julian Joseph stood out: his playing brought an intensity that had been missing, creating solos which built the tension like many modern masters before him.

For all the excellent music on stage, it felt like something was missing. It was as if the orchestra was too reverent or too smooth: it needed some grit. The concert felt a little too worthy, too refined. Neither musicianship nor the arrangements could be faulted, but it needed more – a rougher edge, more risks; some East End grime to balance the midtown smooth.

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Tommy Smith & SNJO Play Dizzy Gillespie. November 2006.

The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra played a concert dedicated to the music of Dizzy Gillespie the other week. It was fiery stuff – hearing the big band run through the bebop charts was impressive.

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It was familiar music: these were tunes I grew up listening to (even if I didn’t enjoy them at the time!). I saw Gillespie play several times in the seventies – small group settings at the Nice jazz festival (mmm… nice) – his trademark upturned trumpet horn to the fore. I have more versions of A Night In Tunisia than any other tune, I think – three by Gillespie in various combinations, a couple by Bird, a couple by Art Blakey, another by Tommy Chase, one by Sonny Rollins, and I must have missed some too; so this is familiar fare.

The SNJO make a habit of this kind of thing: pulling an artist’s music out of the archives, bringing the familiar repertory back to life. In the past few years, they have toured the music of Ellington, Mingus, a good few Miles Davis/Gil Evans sets, and many more – they were down in London recently playing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. They do one or two tours a year; they are well rehearsed, the different sections melding well – and the rhythm section pushing them forward. Lead and conducted by Tommy Smith, he lets the band shine – he plays relatively few solos given his stature in the music and in particular in the Scottish jazz scene: instead, it is the orchestra that he frees up to excel.

The first set seemed quite brash – even without amplification, they were loud. They got the crowd-pleaser A Night In Tunisia out of the way early on – it was the second number, after the opener of Shaw Nuff, with Ryan Quigley taking the trumpet honours to Martin Kershaw’s take on Bird – though Kershaw and Paul Towndrow vied on alto. It was very much the trumpets’ night, though: Quigley and Tom McNiven sharing out the solos, both excelling at hitting the high notes and performing pyrotechnics with their horns. The orchestra seemed to be taking the numbers quite slowly, maybe a little hesitantly.

After A Night In Tunisia, Smith compared Gillespie’s tune to Monty Norman’s James Bond theme. Many years ago, I remember someone pointing out that Norman’s tune was really a bebop solo slowed right down, and Smith illustrated this – the tune of A Night In Tunisia fitted James Bond exactly.

The second set seemed much better; I don’t know if this was me relaxing into the sound, or the band losing their nerves. Either way, it just seemed to flow better – it seemed like the band were enjoying it more. The set opened with a blistering Manteca, Quigley and McNiven joined by the third trumpet of Paul Newton down at the front, the three of them exchanging lines as the excitement built; and the orchestra blew their hearts out in the riffing of the theme. This was brilliant, exciting music, powering to a crescendo of trumpets. Wonderful.

They closed the evening with the onomatopoeic Salt Peanuts, starting as a drum feature – usually I find drum solos inordinately dull, but Alyn Cosker – who had been a little subdued earlier in the evening – shone here. The band played this a lot faster than some of the other numbers – I had wondered if the music was just too complicated for a big band to take at the speed it had been written for (the trumpeter and critic Benny Green once wrote of how he got the sheet music for Gillespie’s tune Bebop to find out what all the fuss was about; he didn’t get it – there was nothing hard to play in the dots; and then he heard the original recording, taken at about four times the speed Green had been practicing it). Quigley and Kershaw, and then McNiven and Towndrow, bounced phrases off each other, having an old fashioned duel, each pair upping the stakes. And then, with the orchestra shouting an ecstatic Salt Peanuts! Salt Peanuts! and a final bomb from the bass drum, they were done.

Mike Westbrook “Village Band”. London Jazz Festival, November 2006.

By the time I got to the Queen Elisabeth Hall, it was packed. I was surprised – I don’t think of jazz being that popular, and even if it were, Mike Westbrook wouldn’t be thought of as that popular: he usually plays quite avant garde music (which I like: his “Art Wolf” project was broadcast on Radio 3 during the summer, and it was stunning, exciting music). But then this was the first concert of the London Jazz Festival, and it was free; and I think just about every contemporary jazz fan in London had turned up – together with a great many musicians (I recognised Chris Biscoe, a great alto player who has played with Andy Sheppard, Carla Bley – and Mike Westbrook); it is easy to tell the musicians at gigs: they are the ones who stand around talking and drinking.

There were no seats available, but then someone noticed a stack of fold-away chairs, and I noticed him grabbing one from the top of an eight foot high pile; so I did the same. (I doubt I would have unless I had seen someone doing so first.) An old guy – much shorter than me – asked if I could get him one, so I gave him my chair, and went back to grab a couple more (one for me, one for his wife); and by then everyone standing had seen the first bloke and then me help themselves, and pile diminished, until it was all gone. The foyer of the QEH was jammed – there was no free space at all.

Westbrook uses lots of different bands: Art Wolf is a quartet (sometimes a sextet); he has big bands. This was the Village Band – apparently formed in the village in Dorset where the Westbrooks live: no rhythm instruments, just brass – saxes, trumpet, trombone, english horn; and euphonium. They played tunes from the broad history of jazz – numbers by Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, together with Mingus (Goodbye Pork Pie Hat – so they had me won other from the outset – and Jelly Roll Soul), Monk (Monk’s Mood), Ellington (The Mooche) and a tune by Tad Dameron (If You Could See Me Now); and a long suite by Westbrook and his wife, which compared the internet to the freak shows of Victorian England (no, really).

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It was a great concert: informal, but fun. It was really interesting to hear those tunes interpreted by the brass instrumentation: it was modern jazz as if it were played by an early New Orleans marching band. I sat there drinking Guinness, enjoying the music: really fun.

TSYJO and EYJO in Glasgow. May 2006.

After some rather good food, we moved to the newly re-opened City Halls for a jazz concert. It opened with the Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra, a bunch of very talented adolescents who frankly put a lot of fully grown musicians to shame. They played a set of standards – Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo A La Turk”, Oliver Nelson’s “Hoe-Down” (the original track ins on the wonderfully named album “Blues and the Abstract Truth”… the music is as good as the name, too), Ellington’s “Cottontail” and “Moten Swing” (Basie, I think).

This was a young band – they are all between thirteen and twenty one – did you get that – thirteen – indeed, one of the thirteen year olds – I think he’s called Liam Neath (but don’t quote me) – is a cracking trumpet player who Tommy Smith had in the line up of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra last time I saw them – this kid played Miles Davis’ lines from “My Ship” beautifully, with a rich, bell-like tone.

And he was great here, too. They are young – each musician was a bit derivative – a bit of Miles here, some Coltrane there – but they were great. Given a few years – a chance to find their own voices – and they will be terrific.

My only criticism is that they seemed to lack a bit of energy at times – it wasn’t a full sound. To be honest, I think the PA was just turned down, because the second band was just louder.

They finished of with a cracking big band version of Salt Peanuts – so they had covered swing and bebop – and those are hard tunes to play. And it was great.

Second up was the European Youth Jazz Orchestra. I felt this was stretching the definition of youth slightly – whilst Tommy’s band were barely into adolescence, EYJO were well into their twenties, and a few looked like they were pushing their thirties. Whilst TSYJO played standards, EYJO played all new material, and it was heavily orchestrated – they were playing the dots. The soles were great – they had all found their voice – but the whole thing felt very arranged – it lacked the rough edges that the kids had had. There was some great piano playing, and the saxes and trumpets really went for it, and it sounded great.

They brought on a piper for an arrangement of “Coming Through The Rye” – and he swung, too. (There have been a lot of pipes in jazz recently; John Rae’s Big Feet used about twenty of them a while back, and Colin Steele mixed pipe, fiddles, saxes and trumpets with a wonderful effectiveness in his band Stramash last month; there is a long history of pipes in jazz – Sonny Rollin’s used the pipes live back in the sixties – there is a recording of the spiritual “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” featuring saxes and pipes.)

But the whole had the feel of a show gig – maybe like they were trying too hard. So the band was good – very good – but it all felt a little too arranged to really take off.

Now’s the time: recent jazz in Edinburgh. November 2005.

There has been a spate of jazz gigs in Edinburgh recently; big, international gigs (Edinburgh harbours a healthy jazz scene, and a new club has opened up replacing Henry’s Jazz Cellar – Henry’s was voted one of the best venues in the world – I’ve been to a few, and I’d agree with that: a wonderful dark cellar, the bar away from the stage, sight lines ruined by pillars… a great place; let’s hope the Lot in the Grassmarket matches it; anyhow, there is a fair bit of jazz in town of an evening, if you want to find it).

There hasn’t been a theme – it is more spill-over from the London Jazz Festival.

Last month kicked off with Abdullah Ibrahim at the Queen’s Hall. This gig had personal significance, since when I started seeing my wife (a while back), Abdullah Ibrahim was the first jazz piano gig I took her too; and she loved it.

Ibrahim comes from a South African tradition, mixing township jive with an Ellingtonian sophistication picked up in New York; he has made some lovely records, township swing to get you going. He even works well with strings – the African Suite is a lovely record. (Most jazz doesn’t work with a classical setting; controversial since I am listening to John Surman in concert with the BBC Concert Orchestra…)

So: Ibrahim was wonderful: an elder statesman of the music, there was a reverential air. (Half the audience were surprised to see that he made it; he is 71.) It was great to see him, and he played some lovely music. But – well, he played; and played. He didn’t stop between tunes, one phrase rolling into the next, one quotation mixed in within another; he just played. And played. There was no applause – he clearly didn’t want the tension to build and break, playing on as one tune morphed into another – and frankly, it was all a bit the same: one tune morphed into another, and they sounded alike too.

He played two sets; and at the end of the first, all the men were dashing for the toilets – his playing without a pause meant there had been no way to quietly leave for the loo. And by the end of the second set – well, we were both pleased to get away. It was just too samey – the same pace, the same key… maybe even the same tune a couple of times.

Next, it was Bill Frisell at the Usher Hall. This was a strange one; Frisell appears on a few records that I have, and they are all very different. It was clear that one shouldn’t have any expectations; so I didn’t.

I met up with a mate from work during the support – where I was sitting, they sounded awful – a pounding African drum resonated through my ribs, irritating my lungs. Not fun. Across the hall, where my mate was sitting – it was fine – it sounded great, actually: a strange quartet of sax, guitar, trombone, and an eastern percussion kit.

Frisell himself was in a trio – him and another guitar, and a fiddle. So not a standard jazz setting. The first tune was a Beatles number, or maybe post-Beatles Lennon. So was the next, and the next. I twigged. Frisell said, “By the way, you may have noticed…” – they were playing all Lennon and McCartney or Lennon numbers. Which frankly got a bit much. They sounded nice, but not too engaging.

And they all sounded the same. So it was good evening, but nothing too exciting.

Then we went to see the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra. A big band – and they were such fun! They have a wonderful sound – a full big band – and they have a great repertoire. They were playing tunes from their catalogue – this was their tenth anniversary tour – and they had some wonderful stuff: a lot of Gil Evans, some Ellington; a bit of basie – it was just superb.

They are a very together orchestra – although they seem to have changed their personnel a fair bit in the last years or so (bass players and drummers – the engine room of a big band – have changed). But what a glorious sound! It just raises the heart to hear those tunes live – the original recording are fifty-odd years old, for the most part. But the band bring them alive. Wonderful.

This was followed by McCoy Tyner. He too must be pushing it a bit: he was part of Coltrane’s classic quartet; and it must be a bit strange playing concerts when you know half the audience are there because of a record you made forty years ago – even if it is the most famous jazz record ever made.

Although Tyner was frail as he made his way to the stage, he playing was fine. He had Charnet Moffet on bass – who was great – and a drummer I didn’t know (according to a Radio 3’s Jazz Line-Up, he played with McCoy when they were teenagers, and retired from jazz to raise his kids in Philadelphia). It was a good gig, but didn’t quite cut it – there was something missing.

Tyner may have been pushing it a bit – someone sitting behind me expressed their surprise that he hadn’t keeled over in the interval – and maybe it was the fact that we were all there on the basis of a handful of records made in the sixties, not for what he was playing today, that counted against the gig.

Then last night I went to see Tomasz Stanko, again at the Queen’s Hall (thanks, guys). This was a different league. Maybe because Stanko is coming from a different place (I kept hearing “Silent Way” Miles) or because he has surrounded himself with three musicians from now rather than then, but the whole thing sounded great. His musicians easily held their – as a trio, their playing was incisive and exciting, really powerful (but quiet) – there was depth in their subtlety. The band was the same as his gig here last year, the “Soul of Things” band – I am afraid I can’t spell their names, anyway; they played with an intensity, an energy that was exciting. Brilliant. Abstract – no tunes, really – but brilliant.