Sunday, November 23, 2008

Review: John Kelly at the Pack Horse, 21st November, 2008

Sometimes the best gigs are the ones you fall over in the dark, unexpected treats... I struggled out Friday night down to the Pack Horse because I had agreed to do the door for Mr Marmion – was feeling tired and a bit rough but did not want to let him down so duly reported for duty. After last weekend's concentrated blast of jazz- from fire musics and back via various ambles into the Asian sub continent – plus the great Roma buskers I heard - somehow folk music was not high on the acoustic agenda. So: it is good to have one's expectations wrenched sideways... To be fair, John Kelly had come with high recommendations from sources I respect, but my mood was not ready for the usual sad wander through the Arc of Loss that I perceive much contemporary English folk music to describe. In the event – the Harmonium Hero conquered all, despatching my misgivings immediately... Possessed of a light, lithe voice, more vocal technique than the average folkie but used expressively, for the benefit of the song, he accompanies on harmonium, backed up with cittern (I think) and guitar. All of which he plays masterfully. This is a man who has thought about his chosen music deep and long I suspect – there is a steely intellectual base to his performance, evidenced in the instrumental backings, (and discretely hidden under a quiet, dryly humourous demeanour) that lets his wonderful voice ride freely over. Use of the harmonium especially means he can match breath to air, as it were, in an organic flow, swaying and bending with the words. This gives the sea songs the movement of waves almost, the long ballads he likes, room for the narrative to flow. His playing on the stringed instruments was equally fluent, displaying technique enough to bend the songs into his use and avoiding the lockstep of orthodox folk clawhammer on his fingerstyle excursions. The material: intriguing... A couple of songs I did not know plus those I know well but haven't heard for a while, 'Polly on the shore,' ' Leazy Lindsay' (he bravely used the 'Lord Ronald McDonald' version and no one tittered!) 'Lakes of Pontchartrain,' 'Lord Gregory.' A nice surprise - 'Captain Kidd,' underpinned by fast, flatpicked cittern which echoed the first time I ever heard it, on a record of the late, wonderful Alex Campbell's back in the early sixties. (Which I found recently on the internet, a warm reminder of a great guy – 'Hell, yeah.'). John has been around, as they say, starting out back in Liverpool way back and retiring from the scene for a few years. Yet in his recent return he displays freshness of vision, rather than retreads of past glories. A rare talent – to be uncompromising musically yet be also accessible. Summed up, perhaps, by his encore: not a belter but a thoughtful meditation on 'The Plains of Waterloo.' A downbeat move – which gripped throughout. A special night... maybe there is something to this folk music lark after all... John gave a performance of grace and subtle power...

A final thought. Mr Marmion told me over lemonade on Saturday afternoon that John had been travelling around the country doing spots in the local clubs in the old pre-internet/MySpace fashion of building a base of support – and had been camping in a van during this endeavour. Which in the weather we are experiencing at the moment shows some steel and dedication. Harmoniums were instruments that were exported to the colonies and beyond in the nineteenth century, because they were not too adversely affected by the climate and were reasonably portable. Missionaries especially would have used them. Fancifully, I see John Kelly as a kind of poetic musical missionary, the long beard giving images of Walt Whitman and the Old Testament in equal measure, taking his music to the heathen. (Walt's beard 'full of butterflies' perhaps, after Lorca... Leviticus 19:27 'Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard.'). He converted me back, that's for sure...

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


A couple of photos from the weekend... The first was taken in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern where there is currently an amazing installation - one of the very few that has ever managed successfully to engage with the size of the place... Dominic Gonzales Foerster's TH.2058

The next two are of a quartet of buskers just down the road - wonderful, driving music. The last, a bit fuzzy, is of another couple of buskers, in the subway leading down to Waterloo station.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Review: Rudresh Mahanthappa Quartet plus Arun Ghosh, Purcell Room, Sunday 16th November, 2008...

To the final night of my attendance... Having spent the afternoon at the Tate I was already knackered so in need of an energy uplift. Which the support band duly gave... Ironically, I was sat next to a lady and her family who informed me that she was Arun Ghosh's aunt and that what we were about to receive we would truly dig. Well – she was right. I wasn't sure I would take to this band – especially after the previous night (and other previous nights down the years re support bands at the LJF). But Arun bounded onstage, an absurdly youthful dude, energy crackling from him – and enthusiasm. Seemingly unabashed by the audience, his patter alone would win him plaudits. Setting off the first number (and all subsequent ones) with a miked up drone box that gave the root note, the band stormed off in fine form. Fronting on clarinet, he displayed a powerful, warm tone and fluid technique. Yet: everything played from the heart. I've never been a fan of Indo-Jazz fusion stuff but his performance made me reconsider some of my prejudices. What further enhanced the performance was the inclusion of Corey Mwamba on vibes who covered a wide range of dynamics from hard mallet hitting to bowed metallic shivers and subtle striking of the keys with his fingertips, splashes of warm rain across a sultry lagoon, fancifully. He was obviously at home in Ghosh's music – where youthful contemporary sass and swagger is tempered by the organic links to Ghosh's Asian roots. One criticism – and a very minor one, because I enjoyed his performance very much – the setting of the drone for each piece was a little formulaic, perhaps. Yet: one has to enter this world with open ears – it partakes of both jazz and Indian musics and the latter's framing devices and cycling figures created - via electric bass, drums and tabla - a large enough space for the solo instruments to move through without constricting the flow. And: this guy is still young. I feel he can open up his unique fusions further yet... certain sections where the trap drums and the tabla emerged from lockstep into freer areas of interplay suggest the potential for that expansion.

In the ongoing sagas of the road and the nightmares encountered thereon, perhaps Rudresh Mahanthappa and his band's story of travel to the gig was not the worst of its kind – just a general reflection on what jazz musicians have to undergo. Apparently they had started from Germany at 5.30 that morning and had not long arrived, after several trains and planes etc. But it makes it more of a triumph to overcome that exhaustion, especially at the end of a tour, and to turn up and play at this level. I don't know his music at all, but I've heard his piano player on record – Vijay Iyer - and he did not disappoint. Again, jazz mixed with Indian influences – structured around various vamps, cycling rhythmic devices and modalities, but across a more complex range than the previous act. More consciously cerebral (and I don't use the word as an insult but as a description), much of his music is based on mathematical properties such as the Fibonacci sequence. Certainly, the use of piano puts the music into a different harmonic space – even though the music would often return to a base tonic, the chromatic flourishes of Vijay Ayer gave a denser feel to the melodic and harmonic interplay. Dan Weiss on drums and François Moutin on acoustic bass made up the quartet, the latter having a few problems with his amplification, an annoyance they dealt with in good humour. A very tight band, led firmly from the front by Mahanthappa's surging alto. In comparison to the support group, it seemed that the leader had added some further levels of complexity to the planting of his Asian cultural roots in the soil of jazz. Bass and drums also worked with more flexibility. I had a flash of Steve Coleman, oddly enough, (although there is a connection – Mahanthappa has worked with him in the past) then Anthony Braxton, who combine similar mixtures of intellectual rigour and free emotional fire. These two are also alto players and composers who, in their unique ways, bring a mélange of wider world culture and theoretical interests to the music. So: brain and heart on display here tonight and a great end to my weekend, an evening where youthful and more seasoned visions combined to pose some interesting questions with regard to the future of the music. Balances shifting?

Review: Peter Brötzmann Trio at the Purcell Room, Saturday, 15th November, 2008

As mentioned in a previous post – some pub band on for support. Then Brötzmann and his young cohorts Marino Pliakas and Michael Wertmüller came roaring out of the gate from the start. This was like going from zero to a hundred in about two seconds! The leader started on alto, spurred on by brave electric bass – reduced to three strings, one snapped by the hard playing, he kept on going until he was able to retreat and change the broken one. Which gave a small indicator of the sheer physicality of this trio – Brötzmann at times struggling a little over the volume generated by the polyrhythmic fury of his drummer, which gave the performance some extra bite. This was exhilarating stuff, from one of the founders of the European free improvisors, an early admirer of Albert Ayler and in his lineage – but someone who carved out his own powerhouse style many years back. I've never seen Brötzmann live before so this was a rare treat. The audience were dragged along in their slipstream almost, the sort of performance that makes fire music so demanding of being experienced live. Brötzmann switched between his horns, two clarinets – one of which looked like a metal Albert - finally ending up on tenor. Each instrument providing a different sonic angle on his muse. Because it wasn't all incendiary – there were interesting moments of contrast where he displayed a more tender side to his playing, which gave some contrast and probably much-needed breathing space. The house loved it: they had come for this and demanded an encore – which was duly given. Brötzmann delivered a nice and somewhat wry speech at the end, thanking the crowd – and gently reminding us that he hasn't been asked over here much. Probably why I've never caught him? A man still on the top of his game, surrounding himself with younger musicians who, despite their obvious reverence ,pushed him all the way. No comfort zones here tonight. One question – again, to the powers that be. Why the pub band? This country is full of musicians who would have been more challenging and served as better foils to the main act. Still, worth the trip just for Herr Brötzmann... Everything I love about 'free jazz' - energy, complexity, emotion, all caught in the moment...

Review: Keith Tippett at the Purcell Room, Friday 14th November, 2008

A rare beauty... Keith Tippett, playing with a string quartet, in a duo with Stan Tracey and in the second half, his wife Julie.

Starters – the mainly written piece for piano and the Elysian Quartet, 'Linuckia.' Tippett joined the other musicians, looking absurdly young and still affecting the muttonchop whiskers which, with his incongruous outfit of smart jacket, ratty blue jeans and watch and chain attached to his waistcoat gave some bizarre rural image of yesteryear. Squire Tippett, perhaps... The piece opened on strident morse code string patterns to be suddenly swept along by a rolling keyboard figure that travelled from top to bottom, a repeated call and response gesture. The quartet were also required to use some extended techniques – plucking, glissando and assorted scrabbling at their instruments as the piano answered and commented in kind. Tippett was using woodblocks and various foreign objects to interfere with his piano sonorities and timbres – devices he used throughout the evening, producing a wide variety of sounds – from blunted, choked back harpsichord to some wild bass figures that sounded at one point as if Meade Lux Lewis had been fed through a sawmill while performing his old boogie woogie. Coming off the 'serious' art music tradition but bent to his own shapes. (Don't you just love that word 'serious' – as if 'jazz' and its related musics are not). Alongside the sharp, disjointed jags he positioned longer melodic lines that reminded me of some bebop legacy. An intriguing start.

Then another Steinway was hauled into place and Stan Tracy, the old guv'nor of the British modern jazz scene – a full head of greying hair swept back flamboyantly, joined Tippett for a fascinating journey. Tracy is not a Brit jazzer I have followed much, to be honest – a lot of his playing back in the old days seemed to be coming a little too much off Monk for me – although his peers have always rated him highly. Tonight, he joined Tippett's sound space in two improvised duets that referenced jazz occasionally but seemed to be moved by more English ambiances, somehow. Hard to place this music which made it more interesting perhaps – the interplay was fascinating as a figure or fragment of melody was picked up and played with in a seamless reel of notes and clusters, occassionally grounded on a march-like succession of chords. Tracey hit out some of his old dissonant harmonies but, placed in this context, they seemed very much of the moment and transcended the obvious jazz lineage. Stan is certainly ageing well and playing with fire and subtlety – and freshness.

The second half was another duo – Keith joined by his wife, Julie. Who famously took a sideways step off the mainstream some time after her hit records with Brain Auger all those years ago. An old story – but I mention it to praise the integrity of someone who felt moved by other forces to dedicate their lives to the remorselessly thankless genre (in dear old Blighty, anyway) of free improvisation. I'm not a fan of vocalists – improv vocalists even less. But I was hauled out of my prejudice by her performance. Standing tall and elegant in front of what looked like a stall at a craft fair – exotic bowls and odd little instruments – she channelled her wide range of voices – from art music pointillistic stabs and intervallic leaps to stranger spaces, occasionally selecting a device for additional delicate sonorities. Accompanied by Tippett's piano, from his surging stormwind basses to filgree strands of sound produced again by objects placed and manipulated within the piano, this was a magical performance that held the audience tight in a warm embrace. A rare beauty was given... The compere at the beginning of the performance mentioned the spiritual aspect of Tippett's improvisatory muse. The journey we had been collectively offered to take surely and subtly demonstrated that premise. ALong with some subtle wit - did I imagine the tinkly music box effect playing the theme from 'The Godfather' at one point?

Walking out into the mild night and across the bridge over the Thames, I stopped to look at the familiar London skyline and a street musician started playing – alto sax, some nice lines that echoed out into the evening, free music, oddly continuing the inspired performance I had just witnessed...

Belated reviews to follow...

Just getting my reviews of the weekend sorted... commencing very soon...

Sunday, November 16, 2008

In Town... London Jazz Festival...

Two down, one to go... Keith Tippett's friday night gig was superb... last night - some pub band on first whose name I have forgotten. Seb Rochford depped on drums - good, on dull material. Guitar player interesting when he got away from his rock fret moves. Then: Peter Brotzmann and his bass and drummer, Marino Pliakas and Michael Wertmüller - fire music of the highest quality. On a different level entirely... Reviews to follow when notes have been deciphered and if I find a cheaper connection! Otherwise - will do the three together when I get back home tomorrow. Off to the Rothko exhibition now - afterwards, a pint in the Hole in the Wall at Waterloo then the last gig - Rudresh Mahanthappa. Hope the support is more interesting... But worth it all so far for Keith Tippett and his wife Julie plus Herr Brotzmann blowing up a storm...

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Review: Howard Coleman's Acoustic Session at the Doghouse...Tuesday 4th November, 2008...

I haven't been down to Howard Coleman's session at the Doghouse for a long time – my loss, if last night was anything to go by. He fronts a mainly acoustic night with a broad range of musics and performers – from the old to the young and back again. Always a lot of energy here – a place where you will experience youthful verve and headlong rush alongside more maturely honed performances. Which is as it should be – one of the reasons I avoid many a so-called 'folk' night is because of the age ghettoisation - safe musics by old people are just not interesting (with the occasional honourable exception). A place where the dynamic bounces between generations and styles - not all one way, either - is much more satisfying...

Starting with a young guy, James Lewis – at the beginning of his musical road. Breathy, sensitive, angst-y, yes, but he gets away with it because of his honesty. You get the feeling he is communicating something you should know about. Raw – and none the worse for that. Polish is overrated... (that's not a reference to a European language, by the way).

A duo – Becky Syson, accompanied by Rebecca Dawson on bass – which gave a fluid underpinning to Becky's reedy, assured vocals and songs that looked at family from various angles and generations – grandparents to brother to boyfriend. She seemed comfortable on stage... as Howard introduced her: 'sublime folk rock.'

Steve Stapley - for a generational shift. Clean picked open-tuned guitar and a husky voice that has the grit of experience rubbed in it. Steve has been around – in fact I had a strong feeling I had encountered him somewhere back down the road - his songs reflecting some low-life times in the States, spinning off Bukowksi, as it were, whom he name-checks. Joined by Linda Hayes for a couple of numbers, one an impassioned outburst against capital punishment. Skillful stuff...

Another jump cut – which is why I love this gig... Two young students, Ryan Meeks and Mikey, guitars, the singer equipped with a soaring falsetto that was stunning placed. They were good time energy, on a variety of songs by artists that ranged from Nina Simone to the appalling Oasis, their version of 'Wonderwall' actually very good, stripped of the neo-con bombast of the original.

Gren Bartley, tonight playing with Robin Melville on harmonica. It was good to see Mr B again – caught him in a very short set a couple of weeks back with his duo sidekick Tom Kitching down at Mr Marmion's (very good couple of tracks from their forthcoming album) but tonight gave him a chance to stretch out into different areas. Gren gets better by the month, his voice toughening (but not coarsening) over fast picking on guitar and banjo. His forays into blues and gospel (Leadbelly, Skip James etc) are fascinating because he does not go in for over-homage but comes at these problematic musics (for europeans) from a fresh direction. His own songs just get better, by the way... Robin backed him with subtlety and bluesy skill.

Tich Vango
to go out on... some minor key hard bluesy stories here, raw slices of life that finished off the night in downtown style. Sung with honest endeavour over minimal but effective guitar - someone who has lived the life he sings about, one suspects.

Another good and fascinatingly varied gig on Nottingham Road... thanks, Howard - and all who sailed with you...

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Label news...

The label is almost upon us... after long months, the Lows and the Highs is about to launch with physical product and mp3 downloads... watch this and other spaces... Hope to get everything done before the London Jazz Festival next week, which I will be attending for three days. Plus that Rothko exhibition...

After an exhausting Sunday, culminating in a superb Pete Morton gig at the Swan, (reviewed before see here, for example) just re-charging the batteries - although I might make it down to road to see Gren Bartley and others later... Folk/acoustic this week - next week - Keith Tippett, Brotzmann and co - the wahoo goes on...

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Mal Waldron... Albert Ayler... Thelonious Monk...

Mal Waldron, playing 'Minor Pulsation.' Opening on almost parade ground drums, then some demented piano, something relentless and eery about this theme, like a rat running round a maze... The A sections based on the drums and the piano hammering out in minor key, the bridge (B) a swift swing in contrast. The exhilaration is found in the manner by which Waldron opens it up, breaking out of the box of the repeated rhythm figures. Some hard-hitting piano, going into a brief bass solo, then the drummer comes up front before they power back into the theme. The dark mood may be attributable to the date of the recording February 24th, 1959 – not long before Billie Holiday died. The album title track is 'Left Alone,' co-composed by Holliday and Waldron. Waldron, of course, was working as her accompanist from 1957 up to the year of her death. (Although their last recording date was in October, 1958). Immortalised in the oft-quoted Frank O' Hara poem (oft-quoted by me, anyway!) 'The day Lady died:'

'... and a NEW YORK POST with

her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everybody and I stopped breathing.'

An image which conjures perfectly the sad and fragile – yet compelling - intimacy of Holiday in her late years.

Albert Ayler – 'this is 'Ghosts, First Variation,' with Gary Peacock on bass, Sunny Murray on drums. Ayler is still a controversial figure, bizarrely enough. In counterbalance, Gary Peacock makes some interesting points about his oft-disputed musicianship:

'FJ: Do you find it pleasing that young musicians find Ayler more interesting posthumously?

GARY PEACOCK: Yeah, Fred, and I think there is two aspects to that. One is just the raw emotionality of it and if someone focuses on that, they are going to miss ninety percent of what he was really about.

FJ: What was Ayler really about?

GARY PEACOCK: He was about music, really, really about music and about continual development with the instrument, with technique, with all of that. So when he played it wasn't just squawks and beeps and honks and that kind of thing. He was really, he was coming from a real place. It was authentic. It was really him. A similar kind of thing that I've noticed, not infrequently, among some of the young avant-garde players as it were. They heard Ornette Coleman and thought that, "Oh, I don't have to understand anything about harmony or melody and I can't play changes anyway and so I'm going to be a free player." Well, that is exactly wrong. That's completely backwards. In fact, Fred, that isn't even true. Ornette could play changes. Albert Ayler could play changes. It is almost a prerequisite. So if someone already has that ability and has gone through that, they have developed their ear to the point where they intuitively know what harmonic order and what melody is. Then they are at a place where they can simply let it go. Paul Bley is that way. Paul Bley can play the changes to anything. But without earning that, without going through the necessary disciplines musically of recognizing that the music is fairly deep and if you are going to be an improviser, there is a pretty rigorous pathway. If you come up short, not being able to hear harmony or finding it difficult as it were to play changes, that should indicate something, then you need to stay there for a while until you can become fluid in that. There is a kind of tendency for musicians who recognize that they can't really hear harmony that well or play something with changes that they still want to play that they can forget about that hurdle. I think that is a musical error.' (From here...)

A live recording – Peacock's bass opens over chatter, then Ayler comes in for the theme, joined by the drums. There is an endearing and subtle simplicity to Ayler's compositions – deriving from folk figures, they stick in your mind. He launches out fairly quickly – elastic swirls of elaboration, the fast runs of bebop still there but dancing in a different space now, underpinned by the freeing up of Murray's drums and Peacock's bass. Sound balance isn't great – the tenor is right up front, the drums more felt than heard sometimes in their spattering punctuations, bass also somewhat shadowy. When the tenor drops out, they are more audible – formidable bass soloing over Murray's interweaving rhythms. Seminal music. And to take Peacock's point above - yes, this is raw emotional stuff - but there are many other musical levels here to be considered. Seminal.

Monk in 1948. Milt Jackson leads in on a medium paced swing. Then the lugubrious (out of Billy Eckstine) vocals of Kenny 'Pancho' Hagood on 'All the things you are.' Monk drops oblique accents behind – sharp lemon on the honey. Jackson takes a half chorus solo, rippling smoothly – followed by Monk, a contrast in sharp angles. Anorak note: Hagood also contributed a track to the Miles Davis 'Birth of the Cool' sessions in 1949 – 'Darn that Dream.'

Without the singer: 'I mean you,' a Monk theme. At this distance, one can hear how the pianist abstracted out from the blues and earlier piano styles and the distance this created from more 'conventional' bop strategies. Jackson again is marvellous – his solo ending on a swirling line that Monk picks up in his turn. On the outchorus, listen to the interplay between vibes and piano. Condensed brilliance.

Mal Waldron
Mal Waldron (p) Julien Euell (b) Al Dreares (d)
Minor Pulsation


Albert Ayler
Albert Ayler (ts) Gary Peacock (b) Sunny Murray (d)
Ghosts (First variation)


Thelonious Monk
Milt Jackson (vib) Thelonious Monk (p) John Simmons (b) Shadow Wilson (d) Kenny Pancho Hagood (v)
All the things you are

I mean you