Tag Archives: Pizza Express Jazz Club

Lee Konitz. London, May 2010.

I saw one of the jazz greats, Lee Konitz, play in London last week. Konitz’ career spans seven decades – he was one of the players behind one of jazz’s most famous recordings, “Birth of the Cool” in 1957.

He played four shows over two nights at Pizza Express; the intimate atmosphere suited him. In a quartet with young pianist Dan Tepfer (Konitz and Tepfer have just released a CD of duos), bassist Mike Janisch and drummer Jeff Williams, Konitz stuck mainly to standards – he said – but he deconstructed and rearranged them so that they became new pieces.

Last Wednesday, his early show comprised of familiar tunes made new and viewed from a fresh perspective. There were tunes by Miles Davis (“Solar”, which Konitz said Davis appropriated from Chuck Wayne), versions of “Cherokee” and a fast “Lullaby of Birdland”, and a Monk tune; all sounded new and fresh – a hard trick for such well known repertoire. Konitz took an oblique take on each number, abstracting them in surprising and inventive ways.

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The first show was so good that we took up the offer to stay for the second, which surprisingly still had seats available; apparently the others shows were all sold out. Sticking with standards – “Get Happy” and “Oleo” featured this time around – Konitz was once more oblique, making the tunes sound even more abstract. Pianist Tepfer really came into his own with some extended solos and a couple of excellent duets with Konitz. The second show was even better than the first, engaging and exciting by turns.

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Some Recent Good – But Not Great – Jazz Gigs… London, May 2010.

I’ve been to several jazz gigs in the last month or so that I haven’t done anything with yet. I was going to write about one for LondonJazz, but by the time I got around to it, it didn’t make the cut. None of these gigs set the world on fire: they were good, but…

First up was Sun Ra’s Arkestra. Not Sun Ra himself – he died seven years ago; or, if you believe his mythology, he returned to Saturn; no, this was the Arkestra led by alto player Marshall Allen. They’ve played in London a fair bit over the last year, quickly selling out every gig: I only managed this one because it was part of a special, extended run which I noticed on Twitter: the Arkestra had been due to play a couple of gigs at Café Oto, and been unable to move on because of the volcanic ashcloud. So they played another gig, and then another, and another, hoping to pay their way – stuck in London, they had to eat and pay their hotel bills.

So I saw them on what was, I think, their fifth night at Café Oto in Dalston. I’d not been there before: apparently it has been described as one of the coolest places in London (or possibly Europe – I can’t find the reference!) but that isn’t how it appeared. No stage, a random selection of chairs, it had the air of a village hall. When I got there, most of the chairs had gone – I sat right at the back, on a bench – and people kept arriving. By the time the band came on, an hour later than advertised (perhaps they were still on Saturn-time), it was packed.

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This version of the Arkestra was a septet: a front line of four saxophonists/percussionists, and a trumpet player, drummer and guitarist/bassplayer. I was expecting great things – the Arkestra have a reputation for playing some formidable, funky space-jazz (true, not a crowded genre), but having seen two other superlative bands playing Sun Ra’s music in the last few months – Orphy Robinson’s Spontaneous Cosmic Rawxtra and Jerry Dammers’ Spatial AKA Orchestra – the Arkestra seemed a bit flat. Maybe they were tired (I certainly was!), or homesick, or… Whatever, I’d say they were good but lacklustre: I expected more. I enjoyed the gig, particularly the humour they brought – these were serious musicians bringing some fun to the gig. But they weren’t great, whatever everyone else was saying.

The following night I went to see the Stan Tracey Octet. Tracey is one of the grand old men of British jazz: even his website describes him as the “godfather of British jazz”, an apt moniker and one of which he seems justly proud. His current octet features three generations of British players, with a front line featuring survivors from the 1980s jazz revival such as Guy Barker on trumpet and Dave O’Higgins on saxes as well as relative youngster Simon Allen on tenor sax.

Tracey plays in a variety of formats – in the past couple of years I have seen him play solo, in piano duet, in a quartet and leading his glorious big band. His octet fits right in the middle, producing a suitably rich sound for Tracey’s Ellingtonian compositions. These two nights at the Pizza Express – rapidly becoming one of my favourite London venues – saw the launch of Tracey’s latest CD, “The Later Works”, and all the numbers played were from the CD’s two suites. Guy Barker was on great form throughout, playing with verve and energy; Dave O’Higgins also played powerfully, with some great solos on soprano as well as tenor.

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Stan played some lovely, thoughtful solos, too, though he seemed to keep a fairly low profile. His long standing rhythm section of his son Clark on drums and Andrew Cleyndert on bass kept things swinging along, with a couple of energetic solos from Clark.

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Finally, last week saw guitarist John McLaughlin grace London. I’d not seen McLaughlin – one of electric jazz’s great – play before, so I thought I’d take the opportunity. His quartet featured Mark Mondesir on drums, another survivor of the 1980s jazz revival, and one of my favourite drummer: I hadn’t seen Mondesir play for many years, and he was the main draw. Multi-instrumentalist Gary Husband played (mostly) keyboards, and bassist Etienne Mbappé completed the quartet.

Once more, this gig was something of a disappointment. It was all a bit soulless, something I’d not expected from McLaughlin – much of his music has been rooted in eastern spirituality, though not this quartet. It was technically excellent, and went along at a cracking pace, but I found it very unconvincing.

Husband played some great piano, but he also made some electronic farting noises which added nothing. He sat down at the drum kit to play a couple of drum duets with Mondesir – and added less than nothing. His drumming was good, and the interplay between him and Mondesir was good, but frankly drum solos are boring, and drum duets doubly so. Mondesir is more than capable of holding his own, and Husband’s interventions didn’t add any more rhythmic interest – so why bother hauling an extra drum kit around? It just felt like showing off – good theatre, perhaps, but not great music.

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McLaughlin and Mbappé got a good groove going – Mbappé laying down some funky lines – and Mondesir was great, but all in all I felt the music lacked something.

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Alyn Cosker Quartet. London, January 2010.

Back in January, I saw the Alyn Cosker quartet play in London. I meant to write about it at the time, but it got lost in a trip away; and also – well, it was good, but really not my kind of music. It is harder to write about things I don’t like so much (but maybe a useful trick).

I know Cosker from his work with Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and Tommy Smith; he can be a very loud brash drummer, but he can also be very gentle and delicate, too – a rare mix.

His own music is strictly jazz fusion – the bits fused being rock-funk. He plays in complex time signatures, with great energy – there wasn’t so much of the thoughtful, gentle Cosker here.

He featured Seamus Blake on saxophone – another forceful, muscular player. It sounded to me like he was playing what he would have played in any other setting – as if there wasn’t a natural fit to their music.

Mike Janisch was on bass – both electric and acoustic. I much preferred the sound of his acoustic playing – acoustic bass just seems so much more subtle.

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All in all, the music was too samey and bombastic – a bit too much. I think Cosker is a great drummer, but I think on this evidence I prefer him as a sideman rather than leader.

Six Sets in Search of a Theme: London Jazz Festival, November 2007

One of the many reasons for picking this particular week to spend in London was to spend time at gigs in in the London Jazz Festival.

We caught three gigs – six different performances. We started off at the Queen Elizabeth Hall for Charlie Haden, supported by Gwilym Simcock.

I have seen Haden play many times, most recently as leader of the reformed Liberation Music Orchestra; this time round, though, he was leading his Quartet West. This was jazz very much in the tradition: it had a standard cool jazz feel, from the West Coast – it could have been any of the small bands lead by Miles Davis in his post-bop period of the 1950s – without the trumpet, obviously.

It was not necessarily the best setting for such music: it felt it needed a smoky jazz club to capture the intimate nature of the sound. The band was good – saxophonist Ernie Watts leading most of the tunes, and pianist Alan Broadbent played some great solos. But it didn’t feel like it was anything new, nor anything special: it was very enjoyable, not great. The LJF programme had said that the band evoked the feeling of film noir. Not in me, it didn’t – unless they equate film noir with smoky jazz clubs, which of course they might. For me, though, that would mean a sparser, meaner sound than the quartet created.

Gwilym Silcock is the wunderkind of British jazz: he has won several awards and was BBC New Generation Artist, and he has been raved about for some while. Frankly, I am not sure that I get it. He was technically very proficient, and he created music of great complexity – the time signatures to all his tunes seemed intentionally obscure (7/13, anybody?) – but it left me cold. He had a percussionist who added nothing; the only member of the band who really shone for me was Martin France on drums, who drove the music along despite the strange time he had to keep.

A couple of days later, we were down in cellar of the Pizza Express Jazz Club – a venue so different to the QEH could hardly be imagined: this was the intimate jazz club par excellence, without the smoke (this is modern Britain – not the 1950s!). Indeed, maybe too intimate: I had intended to take some pictures, but I felt uneasy being so near the musicians – the music was literally in our faces: it didn’t feel right pointing a camera straight at the musicians; I am used to hiding behind the audience. So, no photographs…

The evening started with a duo set by trombonist Annie Whitehead and pianist Steve Lodder. This was the set of the week for me: a blistering, imaginative mix of British jazz. I have seen both musicians play many times over the last twenty years or so – Lodder with District Six and particularly with many of Andy Sheppard’s bands, and Whitehead with the Brotherhood of Breath and Spirits Rejoice, as well as various small bands. Their music really moved, building on a South African feel (tunes were dedicated to the South African émigrés Dudu Pukwana and Louis Moholo, as well as Whitehead’s mentor John Stevens); there was a real understanding between Lodder and Whitehead, and it was a shame they played a relatively short set.

The second set was pianist Bojan Z, playing in a trio format. I last saw Mr Z (his last name is – deep breath – Zulfikarpasic; when he started playing gigs in Paris, he couldn’t fit it on the posters, and reckoned even if he could, no one would be able to pronounce it, so he truncated his name to the memorable Z) play a solo, acoustic gig in a small hotel function room in Dundee, with at most twenty other people – even more intimate than this cellar jazz club in the heart of Soho.

This time round, he had a drummer and bass player backing him, and as well as acoustic piano, he also played a Fender Rhodes, which he ran through a couple of different effects pedals. For all the electronic gadgetry, though, I thought he was at his best on the baby grand – he didn’t need electronics, which added nothing and obscured the fluid lines he was playing. The trio worked well together, the bassist working up quite a groove, and in such a small place they weren’t overpowering.

But they didn’t play my favourite Bojan Z tune – Henri Texier’s beautiful Don’t Buy Ivory Anymore.

Our last evening at the Festival was at the Barbican – another large concert hall, though it felt rather more intimate than the QEH – for another European piano trio (the in thing!), the Tord Gustavsen Trio. The gig was opened by Italy’s Stefano Bollani and Enrico Rava playing piano and trumpet duets. Playing mostly tunes by Rava, they were well matched, their sound filling the hall. Rava’s trumpet lines were well steeped in classic jazz, and Bollani’s piano brought to mind Monk – at times treating it as a piece of percussion.

Gustavsen’s brand of minimalist quiet jazz was a different kettle of fish; contemplative, almost cod-spiritual (I think it was trying, but lacked the depth of truly spiritual music) or meditative. The auditorium was deathly quiet, and it sounded nice – coming as much from classical (think Satie or Debussy) as jazz – but it didn’t really grab me: it didn’t have the intrinsic beauty of the last time I saw them play. This may be because of a truly awful bass drum sound – when everything was so quiet and gentle, the bass drum boomed: it seemed incongruous. We didn’t stay for the encore.

So a mixed week of mostly European jazz. Entertaining, but only Lodder and Whitehead built up any real excitement.