Tag Archives: Tom Herbert

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!


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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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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