Tag Archives: Seb Rochford

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.



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!

Lagavulin Islay Jazz Festival. September 2013.

September saw me migrating to Islay, like the geese, though I was only there for three days: the Lagavulin Islay Jazz Festival. I give it its full name because I love this festival, and I doubt it could happen without the sponsorship of Lagavulin, one of the distilleries on the island. Also, at each gig, they hand out drama of Lagavulin, one of my favourite whiskies, so that’s even more reason to thank them! I think Lagavulin deserve a lot of praise for supporting jazz in a pretty remote part of Scotland, so in case you missed it, it’s the Lagavulin Islay Jazz Festival. (I should point that I have no connection with Lagavulin whatsoever. But should they wish to thank me for my support, a bottle would always be welcome…)

It is a very special event. Because it is remote – a two hour ferry trip from the mainland – and the ferry port is itself three hours drive from Glasgow, you have to want to get there. There is little passing trade. The islanders welcome the festival, both for the music and for the tourism, one of the mainstays of the economy. (The other being whisky – which also brings a lot of tourists.)

The gigs are put on in small, unusual venues: distillery visitor centres, the RSPB reserve, village halls, the Gaelic centre. The audience, too, is relatively small, and one sees the same faces at different gigs – and different years. People go back year after year; I think this is the seventh time I have made the trip in twelve years.

The small venues and audience mean that each gig has an intimate feel; and the sponsorship means that one can see internationally renowned artists in circumstances that are hard to imagine anywhere else. It is a privilege to go to these gigs.

Over three days I caught five gigs by four bands, two of which were really the same. The festival kicked off with Trio Libero, an improvising band costing of Andy Sheppard on tenor and soprano sax, Michel Battina on bass and Seb Rochford on drums. I had seen Sheppard and Rochford play in a trio before; this outing was a much more rewarding experience. Sheppard’s is necessarily the main voice, but both other players are central. Indeed, Rochford’s minimalistic playing is key: at times it seemed as if he was barely playing, but he made every note, every space count. They moved from bebop tunes to free(ish) improvisation, a joy throughout.

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The artists on Islay frequently pay in a variety of ensembles, the programmers mixing them around in new settings. But this was the first time I saw something new: two different ensembles which comprised the same three people. Debuting first as the Callum Gourlay Trio and then playing the following day as the Kit Downes Trio, the tag team of Gourlay on bass, Downes on piano and James Maddren on drums were a revelation. The first gig saw them playing mostly Gourlay’s tunes with a couple of standards added in. Gourlay’s writing showed real depth and maturity, with some beautiful tunes; his playing was excellent too – he played Charlie Haden’s “Chairman Mao” as an exquisite solo.

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The mood changed a little under Downes’ leadership, in a gig that featured mostly his tunes. I have seen him play several times in different bands, but I think this was the first time I had the opportunity to see him lead a trio. It was impressive.

Bassist Mario Caribe lead a trio with trumpeter Colin Steele and guitarist Graeme Stephen. Mario is the one musician – possibly the one person – who has been to every year’s Islay jazz festival, in one guide or another. He played three trio gigs this year, and I caught the first. Featuring several of Steele’s tunes, including excerpts of his Islay suite from his Stramash recording, a bunch of Mario’s and some standards, this was a comfortable afternoon gig: it had a lovely relaxed feel about it. Stephen worked some guitar trickery with a bundle of pedals that balanced Caribe and Steele’s unamplified instruments.

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The promoters had long wanted to get the Esbjorn Svennson Trio to Islay, and had discussed it several times with the band; Svennson’s untimely death in 2007 stopped that from happening, but EST’s drummer, Magnus Ostrom made the trip this year. Headlining two nights at different venues, the Magnus Ostrom Band were perhaps a curious choice for Islay. Their large amount of electronic equipment filled the two stages they played, and at times looked dangerously overloaded. A mixture of jazz, folk and prog-rock, they have quite a dark sound. Ostrom plays drums with a powerful intensity; he uses brushes unlike any other drummer. He looks pained as he plays, as if exorcising inner demons.

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Aside from Ostrom’s insistent drumming, the major musical voice is that of guitarist Andreas Houdarkis. Bringing the main prog vibe, Houdarkis uses lots of pedals to create a rich sound, balanced by the jazz-oriented acoustic piano of Daniel Karlsson. It was a moving performance.

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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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Neil Cowley Trio and Polar Bear. London, June 2011.

(An edited version of this review appeared on LondonJazz last week. With fewer photos.)

Part of the Spitalfields Music Festival, this gig felt more like a rock than jazz gig. It was standing-only in a large, barn-like space in Shoreditch; the audience seemed decades younger than most jazz crowds; and there were large stacks of speakers on stage. And they started dead on time, unheard of for a jazz gig… (So I missed the first fifteen minutes!)

Neil Cowley Trio were first up, and they lived up to the billing of their second album, “Louder… Louder… Stop!” They were loud, and they tailored their set to their louder, more rocky numbers. This was high-energy music, and they got people dancing at the front – not your usual jazz crowd! Cowley’s physical, percussive piano playing and Evan Jenkins’ powerful drumming dominated the sound, sometimes overwhelming new bassist Rex Horan’s playing. By concentrating on their more dynamic, louder tunes from all three of their albums as well as some new material, the trio sounded a little one dimensional – including some of Cowley’s more subtle, contemplative pieces would have added a bit of variety. But it was hard to fault their performance – this was a great set.

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Polar Bear have a completely different aesthetic: from the start, their set was dominated by Seb Rochford’s off-kilter drumming – his bass drum laid down patterns pushing the music along. They created brooding ambient jazz-dub soundscapes, the double-tenor sax frontline of Mark Lockheart and Pete Wareham often working as much against each other as in unison. This felt like crazy reggae created by Ornette Coleman: slow and intense, but still danceable. Much of the time Tom Herbert’s bass was lost in the mix, though he played an extended solo.

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Polar Bear’s music felt cutting edge and experimental at the same time as harking back forty years to early Pink Floyd or Popol Vuh: they sounded like the soundtrack to an apocalyptic movie, dark and moody. There was humour there as well, as “Leafcutter John” Burton added a range of textures, from choppy guitar through electronic noise to complementing the saxes by playing a balloon – a playfulness that was startling in its effectiveness. Polar Bear create a curious mixture, but it worked superbly on Tuesday night.

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Andy Sheppard and Guests. London, March 2010.

I have been listening to Andy Sheppard’s saxophone for over 20 years – he was one of the foremost musicians of the mid-80s British jazz revival. He plays in lots of different formats; last time I saw him, just before Christmas, he was in a trio with a bass player and iconoclastic drummer Seb Rochford. I really loved that gig, and when I saw Sheppard was playing with Rochford and pianist Rita Marcotulli, I reckoned it was a must-see.

It was a different format though: Sheppard played first with Marcotulli, then with Rochford, then Marcotulli again and finally in trio with both of them. The duet with Marcotulli worked beautifully. The piano was quite sparse, creating a slightly folk-like backdrop to Sheppard’s playing. They shared the credits, playing alternately Marcotulli’s and Sheppard’s compositions. I loved the sound they created – though quiet, it was powerful and emotional.

In contrast, I didn’t think the duets with Rochford worked at all: there didn’t seem to be any connection between them at all. I think it would have been better to hear Sheppard completely solo, because I thought the drums got in the way. (Once again, I disagree dramatically with John Fordham!) This changed completely when they played as a trio, the piano bringing balance to the music. As a trio, I thought the music was excellent – powerful and compelling; great stuff.

Spitalfields’ Summer Stew Jazz Festival. London, September 2009.

I went to Spitalfields’ jazz festival this weekend. I wrote a short review which was posted by the LondonJazz blog. I was going to post it here too, but frankly I might as well just post a link to it here. So I have.

What LondonJazz didn’t do was take pictures from all the bands though – so I shall post those…

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