Tag Archives: Paul Towndrow

Mike Stern and SNJO. Edinburgh, February 2016.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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SNJO Play “The Jazz Genius of Billy Strayhorn”. Edinburgh, February 2015.

I have seen the SNJO play many times since they started twenty years ago. I like what they do. And I love the music of Billy Strayhorn. So they would have tried very, very hard for me not to enjoy this gig.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen. Though they did work hard, it was a joy. Working from Strayhorn’s original charts – and including many recently found tunes and scraps of tunes – and covering the whole of Strayhorn’s career to celebrate the centenary of his birth, this was the SNJO in repertory mode.

They started with “Take the A Train”, the first of Strayhorn’s charts for Duke Ellington, a more restrained performance than their concert of Ellington numbers a while ago, and over the course of two long (but two short!) sets took us through to Strayhorn’s last composition, “Blood Count”, written when he was having treatment for leukaemia (and recorded after his death on Ellington’s memorial to Strayhorn, “…And His Mother Called Him Bill”). “Blood Count” was beautifully elegaic.

The playing was subtle and refined, the charts leaving little space for extravagant histrionic solos. At times it seemed like the band were channelling the greats from Ellington’s bands: altoist Paul Towndrow had Johnny Hodges’ tone down to a tee, trumpeter Tom McNiven stretching for Cat Anderson’s high notes and, had I been listening with my eyes closed, I would have sworn the clarinet was coming from Jimmy Hamilton rather than Martin Kershaw.

With Kershaw leading on clarinet he had to double on tenor, and the second alto was filled unusually by Konrad Wiszniewski, leaving Tommy Smith as the only lead tenor player. He naturally filled that role perfectly, with beautiful solos on “Isfahan” (played as a duet with Brian Kellock on piano) and “Lush Life”.

SNJO have got a busy year ahead as they celebrate their twentieth anniversary. with Kurt Elling singing Sinatra in May, a June tour of the Highlands & Island with Eddi Reader (I have half a mind to catch them in Ullapool…) and autumn tours featuring firstly the music of Benny Golson and secondly Glenn Miller. I wonder if they do requests?

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.

Trumpets. And hats. And three saxophones… Brass Jazz and Tomasz Stanko. London Jazz Festival, November 2009.

First gig of the London Jazz Festival for me was Brass Jaw at the Barbican. A somewhat misshapen saxophone quartet – Paul Towndrow on alto, Konrad Wiszniewski on tenor and Allon Beauvoisin on baritone – they also feature Ryan Quigley on trumpet. I had seen all these musicians before, but I had somehow missed them in this line up before. Quigley was the man in the hat.

The Barbican was busy, lots of people waiting to hear the band play, so there was bemusement when saxophones were heard in the distance: we thought we were in the wrong spot. But the sound got louder, and I realised the band were coming to us. They came up the stairs and moved through the audience. People were surprised – it isn’t often you come face to face with a trumpet bell, and a moving baritone sax isn’t to be messed with!

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Climbing on stage, they proceeded to play a great set, especially that they had battled through stormy seas and a lack of sleep to get there. They mixed standards with originals – Beauvoisin featured on a fine version of Ain’t Necessarily So; he did a great job of keeping the quartet together throughout the gig, taking the bass line and holding them steady.

Perhaps because he had a different sound, trumpeter Quigley stood out. He hits the high notes and plays the showman, too. All three saxophones played well – they all have different styles, so it meshed well.

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More trumpet – and another hat – in the evening when Tomasz Stanko took to the stage at the Queen Elisabeth Hall. With a young quintet featuring electric guitar, he had a wistful, ethereal sound – distinctly European, I’d say. The guitar invites comparisions to mid-1960s Miles – Stanko has a similar tone to Miles, too, and he plays similar runs. Also like Miles, he doesn’t say a word – the music has to stand on its own. His tunes are impressionistic and abstract. His trumpet sound is very clear – European cool perhaps (in contrast to Quigley’s fiery high notes).

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Stanko is the dominant voice in the quintet. The piano loses out a bit to the guitar, which is the second solo instrument, the piano being relegated to rhythm. The coolness in the music means they don’t necessarily connect with the audience, and at times it appeared like they were on autopilot. They still created a lovely, fresh sound.

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