Wednesday 24 November 2010

Ten Great Songs From The Shadows

That is, songs which are obviously the product of genius, albeit unknown genius. It may be that the the name on the credit (I’m talking about cover versions here) is unknown, and the song is manifestly immortal. This may occur because a) the writer was (or is) too well-balanced to pursue a conventional career in music, or b) he happened to be Bob Dylan’s best mate, and the magic has retrospectively rubbed off (otherwise known as the Bob Neuwirth Syndrome). There are an awful lot of Great Songs From The Shadows out there, so here are ten to be getting on with. 

1. Your Sweet  & Shiny Eyes by Nan O’Byrne
An irrepressible song about youth, romance, Mexico, escape, and the escalating pleasures of life. It comes from Home Plate (1975) by Bonnie Raitt, and features a fresh-faced Tom Waits among the chorus. Nan O’Byrne’s name sounds as earthy as the peat and potato mentioned in the lyric, and I would never have guessed (as a quick Google reveals) that the same hand is responsible for ‘You Might Need Somebody’, the Randy Crawford hit.     

2. She Sang Hymns Out of Tune by Jesse Lee Kincaid 
Wistful and absurd, ‘Hymns’ follows the logic of a nursery rhyme, replete with a touch of brain-fried psychedelia. Nilsson sang it on Pandemonium Puppet Show (1967) but the definitive treatment is on Wheatstraw Suite by The Dillards (1968), complete with church organ and high-rent orchestral backing. Jesse Lee Kincaid was a member of The Rising Sons with Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal (above, Kincaid with Taj Mahal). The sole Rising Sons album was issued in 1992, some 27 years after it was recorded.
More info:

3. Icarus by Anne Lister 
A paean of praise to glamorous extremism from a dull bystander. The Icarus of the Greek myth is a charismatic who pushes at the boundaries, and is hero-worshipped from afar. The doomed skydiver here is emblematic of all the decadents, addicts burn-outs and madmen who experience life to the full so that we don’t have to. Found on Martin Simpson’s Sad Or High Kicking! (1985) and guaranteed to cause goosebumps. Writer Anne Lister has another song on the album, ‘Moth’, which is a less effective variation on the same theme. More info: (which reveals a more extensive discography than I suspected). 

4. Jazzman by Ed Holstein 
Also celebrating the self-destructive, wilful side of human nature and also on Martin Simpson’s Sad Or High Kicking! (clearly an existential kick), the definitive version of ‘Jazzman’ comes from Steve Goodman on his eponymous debut (1971). It’s distinguished by the contrast between Goodman’s voice - normally warm, but here simmering with controlled frenzy - and the turbulence of the accompaniment (Nashville’s finest, crossing over to the dark side). Bonnie Kolok got to it first on After All This Time (1971), and the song was also recorded by Pure Prairie League and Tom Rush. Ed Holstein, a singer-songwriter from the South Side of Chicago comes from that generation who were fired by Pete Seeger and the Kingston Trio. He co-owned a club, Someone Else’s Troubles, with his folksinger brother Fred and Steve Goodman (Ed is pictured, far right, on the cover of the Goodman album of the same name), and subsequently opened Holstein’s, which closed for business in 1988. Ed survives Goodman (d. 1984) and Fred (d. 2004).
Picture by Richard Wasserman -

5. Goodbye Goodbye by Nigel Beresford 
An enigmatic, haunting song - from Thank You For… by Bridget St John (on Dandelion Records, 1972), in which something momentous - like the end of a relationship, or the end of the world (the running refrain is “It’s the end of time”) - is held at bay by dreamy composure. The song summons everyday pleasure and everyday melancholia and is inexplicably touching - “Broken down doorway and into the street / Saving my breath for the people I’ll meet…” - in its trust that love will survive the end of time. Who is Nigel Beresford? No idea. A friend of Bridget St John, who delivered ‘Goodbye Goodbye’ bespoke, would be my guess. The line, “Picture the lady who daily flew high” echoes ‘Fly High’, a song from the same album. Beresford also contributed a song to Jumblequeen (‘Last Goodnight’), but that album lacks the charm of Thank You For…, and indeed Ask Me No Questions and Songs For The Gentle Man

6. Nelson’s Farewell by Joe Dolan 
A gleeful account of the blow struck against the English Empire when Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin was blown up by IRA sympathisers. The song appears on The Dubliners’ Finnegan Wakes, a live album recorded in April, 1966. The bombing only took place in March, so songs, like journalism, are history’s first draft. It’s author, ‘Galway’ Joe Dolan, is the ultimate songwriter from the shadows. Possessed of a rich baritone voice, oodles of charisma and songwriting genius, he quit Sweeney’s Men (the group he formed with Johnny Moynihan and Andy Irvine) at the first sign of success, and buried himself away in Connemara, where he pursued a living as a painter. Songs still came at a prolific rate, however, and he would preserve them by singing into a humble cassette recorder in his kitchen. The tapes were later transferred to compact disc, and sold by mail order to a tiny fan-base. Dolan’s version of ‘Nelson’s Farewell’ is on Lost Miles and Broken Strings 3. It’s hard listening - the lo-fi sound matches the austerity of Dolan’s vision - but the songs are wonderful. Dolan, plainly a man wrestling with his own demons, identifies with doomed figures from history. There are songs here about Ernest Shackleton, who died trying to reach the South Pole in 1911 (with a companion piece, Amundsen, about the man who succeeded), hunger striker Bobby Sands and Jack Kerouac. Joe Dolan died on January 7, 2008. 
More info: 
And see also 

7. They Don’t Write ‘Em Like That Anymore by Pete Betts
The song casts a rosy glow over a deprived past to relieve an equally deprived present. ‘They Don't Write 'Em Like That Anymore’ celebrates the communal sing-song of old with a communal sing-song of the present. It’s nostalgic twice over: for the time it commemorated (pre-rock and roll), and for the time it was written, which are now equally remote. The song graced Vin Garbutt’s 1978 album Tossin' A Wobbler. Naturally, the album didn’t disturb the charts, nor was the author, Pete Betts, troubled by a nomination at the Ivor Novello Awards. Nevertheless, ‘They Don’t Write ‘Em’ is a folk club standard, and can be relied upon to get any assembly singing along with gusto. Pete Betts? This from “...Pete Betts, a long-time friend of Vin Garbutt’s from the Middlesbrough area. I first saw him at one of Vin’s gigs at Louth Folk Club in 1972. He had driven Vin to the gig but also did a floorspot himself. He was superb and was later booked in his own right” - Captain Swing.  (Above, Pete Betts, left, with Vin Garbutt.) 

8. Aqaba by Bill Caddick 
June Tabor is a great cultivator of songwriters (Dave Goulder, Maggie Holland, Les Barker) but the most consistent and enduring has been Bill Caddick. Indeed, no June Tabor album would be complete without a work of heartbreaking genius by Bill Caddick as its centrepiece (‘Unicorns’ for A Cut Above, ‘She Moves Among Men’ for Abyssinians, ‘The Writing of Tipperary’ for A Quiet Eye). ‘Aqaba’, in which England and Arabia, and victory and defeat, are dissolved in the last moments of the life of T.E. Lawrence, gave its name to a 1989 album by Tabor. It is Caddick and Tabor’s masterpiece. Indeed, the notes of the Always box-set reveal that the song is close to being a co-write.   

9. A Woman’s Quiet Night by Marty Kuwahara 
From Calavera (1998) by Abner Burnett. Abner Burnett and Marty Kuwahara were friends on the fringes of the Texas folk scene. Kuwahara’s repertoire included ‘Child’s Song’ by Murray MacLuachlan and ‘A Woman’s Quiet Night’, which he claims to have stolen, but would never reveal the exact source. The song clearly derives from ‘Heritage’ by Benny Gallagher and Graham Lyle, which Kuwahara may have found on McGuiness Flint (1970), or as the B-side to the Mary Hopkin single, ‘Think About Your Children’ (1970). It’s a simple song, which Kuwahara simplified even further by dropping all the verses and retaining only a modified version of the chorus - “If I could only give you tomorrow / And put it in your eyes / I’d be satisfied.” The context is the same - a message of reassurance to a lover - but Kuwahara stretches the words and the melody into something infinitely more subtle. Marty Kuwahara? A suicide, Abner thinks, although the circumstances are mysterious. This gem of a song, transformed in the act of theft, is his legacy. 

10. Annabelle Lee by Bob Neuwirth  
Self-loathing and lost love in the cantinas and alleys of Mexico (we’re back where we started). It comes from the album T-Bone Burnett by, ahem, T-Bone Burnett (1986). The author’s own version can be found on Back To The Front (1988). ‘Annabelle Lee’ wouldn’t disgrace Desire by Neuwirth’s old buddy Bob Dylan. 

Thursday 23 September 2010


Bar Centro, Wednesday September 22, 2010  

Words are inadequate for this one. Once in a while you come across a performer of luminescent brilliance. So it is with Myshkin, no longer an urban hillbilly (she's spent the last few years building a house in the wilds of Oregon). She cast a spell with her assured singing and guitar-playing, conferring the intimacy of a living-room to the space downstairs at Bar Centro in central Manchester (actually nice and cosy, with it's wood-panelling and temporary carpet). 

Myshkin's songs take unconventional forms and contain unconventional chords, and are strange and marvellous beauties. She sings with gradual crescendo and decrescendo, stressing a word or phrase for emphasis, and then trailing away to a whisper, which is even more compelling, because whispers command attention more than shouts. Very few singers follow the cadences of speech so faithfully. Such deep emotions, however, are only expressible in song. We listeners became like Ancient Greeks participating in the mysteries: passively soaking up profundity, until it came time to applaud: almighty whoops were our chief contribution to the unfolding human drama. 

Emotions were complex, rueful, bitter and proud. Songs may be about an ex-neighbour from New Orleans, rebuilding her house after Katrina only for it to be destroyed over by Rita.  There was a version of Billie Holiday's Yesterdays, improved and amplified by Myshkin's own moving lyric in the middle section, and the autobiographical Ruby Warbler,  a generous and clear-eyed recollection of stormy youth. The songs were mostly new, and there was nothing from the last (Sigh Semaphore: ageing now, from 2006, and with very short running-time, but everything by Myshkin is indispensable). So the signs are that Myshkin's next album is going to be wonderful. For conviction, sensitivity and truth, this was one for the ages. What, despite Myshkin's head-cold and a PA system that turned her into a grunge artist for the night? Yes and yes. Myshkin is the best. 

Thursday 16 September 2010

Kyla Brox - A Listener's Guide

All this talk of Victor Brox is very well, but what about his talented daughter?  

There is probably no more authentic blues and soul singer in the UK than Kyla Brox. Born in Lancashire in 1980, she was given various instruments by her supportive father, which were mostly taken back and sold. The flute remained, however. She joined the family business in 1992, singing with Victor onstage at Band On The Wall, and joining his regular touring group shortly afterwards. The core of the Kyla Brox Band go back to this remarkable unit, laughingly referred to as 'the child slavery band'. As well as Kyla (13, but could pass for 21), it contained bassist Danny Blomeley (13, but unfortunately he went the other way, and could pass for eight), and drummer Phil Considine (19), both Kyla Brox Band mainstays. 

When Blomeley left to travel the world, he eased the blow with the promise to find Victor some Australian dates. The resultant tour, in 2000, introduced a new audience to the Brox blues brand and Kyla, just turned 20, became a full-fledged soul belle. The band travelled the Stuart Highway, entertaining at mining camps in the outback.  On the 2001 return tour, Victor and Kyla circumnavigated the continent by the seaboard route, clocking up 38,000 kilometres. 

She recorded with her father around this time, mostly lo-fi documents of live shows with minimal packaging, or even unadorned CD burns, cheaply produced to sell at gigs (Victor, prolific but economic, is a discographer's nightmare). The most professional of these is Darwin Night Train, recorded live at Darwin Festival, September 2000, by ABC Radio on the group's maiden Australian tour. Then, back in Manchester, the nucleus of the child slavery band reformed around Kyla. No more Victor and Kyla, or Kyla Jane and Victor with the Brox Gang, or even Victor 'Pur & Dur' & Kyla 'Raving Jane' Brox (her father was the last to drop her middle name). The soul belle was ready to step out on her own. A succession of albums followed. 

Kyla Brox - Window (2003)
Solo debut, takes its cue from the lo-fi ethic of Victor's last few albums, gathering home recordings with a smattering of live tracks . The songs are evenly divided between soul/blues standards and originals. Of the former, there are nice, unvarnished accounts of Let's Stay Together and I Can't Stand the Rain. Of the latter, here's the first sighting of Candice, a long-time staple of live shows. A balance is struck between the soulful originals - where the tone is summery,  bitter-sweet and romantic, sung with the trembling ardour of a young girl - and songs in the risque blues tradition, sung with the delight of a much older woman. This split more or less characterises Kyla's music to this day. Arrangements are stripped down to Danny Blomeley's adept and sympathetic acoustic guitar, Tony Marshall's tasty sax - he sounds like the missing link between King Curtis and John Coltrane - and, sparingly used, Kyla's delicate flute, at once incongruous and perfect.  

Kyla Brox - Beware (2003) 
This is the Kyla who rocks them in the aisles at Colne Blues Festival. Beware finds the singer trying on the mantle of Ann Peebles (Beware, Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody's Home), Etta James (I Just Want to Make Love to You), Gladys Knight/Marvin Gaye (Heard It Through the Grapevine), Sugar Pie Desanto (Soulful Dress), Betty Lavette (Damn Your Eyes) and Nina Simone (Feeling Good). Perhaps because of her unique background - she was undertaking annual tours of Australian mining settlements with bluesman father Victor at the time of recording - she makes a very good fist of it. No one in her twenty-something generation understood the blues quite as well. Her very name, Kyla, sits naturally besides Etta and Betty, and she moves as seamlessly from the lacerating to the ecstatic. In an act of filial piety, she cuts the definitive version of Sick and Tired by Brox Snr, and offers a universal statement of malcontent of her own, Feel My Pain. 

Kyla Brox Band - Coming Home (2004)
This realises the promise of Window by adding an extra ingredient: the groove. it's a groove that comes from constant work with an active working band. Saxophonist Tony Marshall and Marshall Gill, a guitarist from the BB King school of searing sweetness, fulfil most of the solo honours. Bassist Danny Blomeley and drummer Phil Considine are veterans of Victor's 'child slavery band'. And what a tight unit they are, personally and musically (groove triumphs over song on Won't Fit There). Twelve out of the 14 selections are Kyla co-writes or originate from within the Brox circle (Victor is responsible for Working On Your Love; incidentally, brother Sam is producer). Coming Home displays an empathetic Kyla, working out the work/life balance (She Knows) or her issues of self-doubt (Things I'd Change, Guilty), but also a tougher Kyla. This means that all the raunch is concentrated in one song, Do I Move You (a smouldering Nina Simone number), which actually intensifies the impact. The other cover, Don't Change Horses, is a real find. Rescued from the back-catalogue of seventies West Coast funksters Tower of Power, the song is a certified show-stopper, mixing real emotion (a plea for a second chance) with outrageous showmanship ("Giddy up, hi ho Silver…"). And, with the Blomeley/Considine rhythm team piling on the coal, it builds up a fine head of steam. If Don't Change Horses represents the zenith of the Kyla Brox Band, then Working On Your Love demonstrates the latent strength of the Kyla Brox Duo, with Kyla and Danny giving an object lesson in how less is more. 

Kyla Brox Band - Live at Matt and Phred's (2006)
Recorded live in Manchester, UK, on 11 March 2006, this captures the Kyla Brox Band in their prime. The opener, Working On Your Love, demonstrates Kyla's mastery of the soul singer's art. She calibrates the performance perfectly, stoking up the heat by degrees. The band's constant roadwork is reflected in the tightness of the playing. The songs are more lived-in and feel comfortable. Dig the way Danny's supple bass lines twine around Tony Marshall's sax on She Knows, and marvel at how Phil piles on the funky counter-rhythm at the climax of Don't Change Horses. Kyla herself is at her expressive best on Today I Sing the Blues. It's an honest document too. The rough and ready sound, complete with electrical hum and audience noise (oh, the weekend crowd at Matt and Phred's!) actually add authenticity. The rousing spirit makes up for any deficiency in fidelity. 

Kyla Brox - Gone (2007)
First album entire of Brox/Blomeley originals, with the exception of a single Brox credit (more of that later). When guitarist Marshall Gill was recruited by New Model Army, the old band ceased to be. This is Kyla and Danny's record, with band accompaniment on assorted tracks. Kyla was never averse to putting her feelings on show - that is her stock-in-trade as a soul singer - but in euphoric songs like This Is The Life, we're now getting more of the inner life. The depth of experience of the title song, a moving testament to loss, is new, while More Than Me proves how attractively Brox and Blomeley can write in the orthodox soul idiom. The stand-out cut, however, is the a cappella closer, You Said You'd Be My Sunshine, which is Brox sans Blomeley, and written in bitterness about a lover responsible for "five long years, no ring and no change." The singer stirs up a maelstrom of passion that is beyond assuagement. It had the desired result. Shortly after the recording, Danny bought Kyla the ring.

Kyla Brox - Grey Sky Blue (2009)
Kyla and Danny in a stripped-down duo setting. Goose-pimples are aroused on the first track, All Breaking Down, and then recur with uncommon frequency. Kyla's torchy vocals and Clive Mellor's harmonica on Since I Fell For You, the token blues standard, accentuate the four-in-the-morning feeling. Elsewhere, the spartan, exquisite atmosphere is the pretext for a high level of creativity. Danny's acoustic guitar is by turns gentle and unrestrained, always inventive, whilst Kyla has never sounded more alluring. The blues quota is satisfied with Get Ready and Shaken & Stirred, executed with ripe self-confidence, but songs like Kasbah and Like The Sky link directly back to that gorgeous first acoustic album, Window, but have the patina of experience (and, it must be admitted, superior technical resources). Rest Assured is deeply felt, with a gravity that goes beyond the youthful ardour of Window. Feel My Pain is reprised with fingerpicking urgency. And here's an answer song: "Remember when you said you'd be my sunshine / And I cried / Because I thought it would never be my time / Well I was wrong / You came through / And turned my grey sky blue." Grey Sky Blue (the album) was recorded when Kyla was pregnant with Sadie. It has a valedictory quality, and is simultaneously a summation and a fresh start. 

Wednesday 11 August 2010

Kyla Brox Band

Friezland Church Hall, Saturday 7 August 

There is no more authentic blues and soul singer in the UK than Kyla Brox. Blues and soul, note, because the two forms are indistinguishable when they're played right. The fact that Kyla is still playing such intimate gigs as Friezland Church Hall is almost proof of authenticity. Her raw talent and purity is a shocking thing in an age of conveyor-belt pop idols. 

She's so good that she merits two kinds of listening. At home, Brox CDs can honourably share the same shelf as Janis Joplin or Tracey Nelson (she has a better voice than either) or, getting closer to the source, Irma Thomas and Koko Taylor. But there's no substitute for the intensity of the live experience. 

The show kicks off with a slow-burning blues. From the go, Kyla demonstrates her mastery of the soul singer's art. She calibrates a performance perfectly, and, like the best soul singers, she takes her time and stokes up the heat by gradual degrees. 

Next, Frustration vents some negative feelings about the daily grind. It's an original by Brox and Blomeley (Danny; bassist, life and musical partner). Every serious musician's goal is the search for one's own voice. This becomes even more urgent in a structurally rigid form like the blues. Part of the solution is to write original material, firmly in the vernacular, but with enough individuality to be distinctive. Always Looking At Me is another original, and the scenario overturns blues machismo: it's the girl who takes the initiative. 

Kyla does 'sassy' very well, but then, to put such role-playing in broad relief, Gone is about real emotion and real pain: specifically, the bereavement of Kyla's much-loved grandmother. When she sings, "it's unbelievable you won't know my first child", the line acquires extra poignancy from the knowledge that Kyla is the mother of 13-month-old Sadie. But even blues singers can buckle under the weight of pain, and so Shaken And Stirred returns to lusty concerns, with Kyla declaring her women's love rights.

This zig-zag of conflicting emotion is one of the chief characteristics of soul music, which has always blurred the distinction between pleasure and pain to a sadomasochistic degree. It's probably the one thing that damns it the most in our straight, strait-laced, anodyne culture. 

How hard is it to be a young woman on the road? There's a famous quote from Janis Joplin: "On stage I make love to twenty-five thousand people, and then I go home alone". In a very tough business, it's necessary to have a support network. First there was dad, of course: Kyla started singing with her father, legendary bluesman Victor Brox, at the age of 12, and is a veteran of two gruelling and very surreal (naturally, for Victor) Australian tours. But bassist Danny Blomeley and drummer Phil Considine have been playing with Kyla since they were all members of Victor's band, the edition laughingly referred to as the "child slavery band". The musical benefits are obvious: the joint co-operativeness, the telepathic understanding. They predict each other's thoughts, and are really inside the music. Whereas many blues drummers are ploddingly four-square, Considine is a delight, with a jazzman's ability to vary the dynamics of a beat. Danny Blomeley is always there, both on-stage - he is self-effacing virtuoso on bass - and off-stage, as helpmate, manager and proud dad. 

Don't Change Horses In The Middle of Stream has been a highlight of Brox gigs since 2004, when Kyla rescued it from an old LP by Tower of Power, and made it all her own. It's great. This kind of aggressive soul, which draws on hard rock riffs and is decidedly unsentimental, is under-explored but fabulously potent. Think of I'm Just Not Ready For Love by Erma Franklin, or There's A Break in the Road by Betty Harris. It's natural territory for Kyla, whose blues legacy gives her license to be blisteringly abrasive. 

There are unexpected touches, like the flute on Do I Move You. How many other celebrations of raw sex are embellished by pretty tooting from this most pure and elevated of instruments? Marshall Gill is a guitarist from the Peter Green School. spinning single-line arpeggios that cut like razors, driven by melody, so that the attack is concealed and all the more effective. A true guitar hero, Gill is beginning to look disconcertingly like Seasick Steve. 

Another Marshall, Tony Marshall, is a saxophonist with a vocalised quality, like King Curtis or Junior Walker (all the best soul saxophonists, in fact). Occasionally, he will venture into Charlie Parker mode, and launch an avalanche. More often, he prefers to be Tony Marshall. 

But then Kyla can also turn around and surprise. On the second Nina Simone song of the evening, the crowd-pleasing Feeling Good (reserved for the encore), she sailed into the upper register and achieved operatic purity with some uncustomary high notes. The different registers convey different emotional states: pleading in the upper register, brusque and sassy in the lower. The duality can be unsettling, especially when they alternate in the same line, but it's very, very compelling. Kyla can make the earth move when she sings. 

Tuesday 3 August 2010

Manchester Jazz Festival

Various venues, 23-31 July 2010

MJF at Albert Square

The fifteenth Manchester Jazz Festival opened with a demonstration of time-honoured jazz virtues: UK vibes virtuoso Jim Hart teamed with US trumpeter Ralph Alessi with backing from US expat bassist Mike Janisch and Loop Collective drummer Dave Smith (Festival Pavilion, Friday 23 July). The music was understated, sparkling and cool: the emotion was controlled (lyrically elegiac on the Dankworth tribute, For JD), and tunes were intricate, angular and gracious. The most outward sign of change was Smith's drumming, which was soft, constantly in motion and subtly galvanising. Jazz is going through one of its periodic shifts of evolution at the moment (MJF, with the emphasis on contemporary music, is always a useful barometer), and  drummers are at the forefront of the New Thing.

Marshall Allen, in an informal setting

Whereas Marshall Allen (Band On The Wall, Friday 23 July, with James Harrar's Cinema Soloriens and The Cosmo-Drama) is an Old School revolutionary who learned his trade in the intergalactic hothouse of the Sun Ra Arkestra where he led the reed section for forty years. Allen learned at first-hand from Sun Ra how to translate spirit into music. Tonight the spirit included alienation, rigorous self-expression and fearless indifference to audience approval. Indeed, half the audience walked out. The projections on the backdrop could have been fifty-year-old underground movies. In fact, they were newly minted by James Harrar, a film-maker as well as the reedman leader of Cinema Soloriens, a kind of radical repertory band. 

The performance saw the first (but not the last) tranced musicians of the Festival: guitarist Kamil Kruta, a leonine figure in green trousers, and drummer Ed Wilcox, who sang "play me something crazy" and proceeded to follow his own instruction. The set was unstructured and apocalyptic, relieved intermittently by exotica (drifty flute, thumb-piano, a mandolin straight out of the Carolina backwoods). The climax coincided with (silent) footage of Sun Ra, when the Nat Birchall Quartet joined Cinema Soloriens on-stage. The Mancunian saxophonist had earlier offered a set of gentle Coltrane, and here was asked to leap into the unexplored void of late-period Coltrane. He looked awestruck.

The New Thing, 2010-style, was evinced by Magic Hat Ensemble (Festival Pavilion, Saturday, 24 July). Ostensibly a hard-bop vehicle for Steve Chadwick's gracefully melodic trumpet, Magic Hat music is characterised by rhythmic elasticity. They do strange things with time, switching beats in dazzling unison, or doubling, tripling or quadrupling time in the same phrase. They overturn conventional rules about head and solo and ransack the collective memory for unexpected tunes: Who Will Buy from Oliver! was performed in best My Favourite Things modal style, coming on like Anglo-Coltrane. Such ingenious mischief requires fine ensemble precision (Rob Turner, making the first of six MJF appearances, is a marvellously kinetic drummer): Magic Hat Ensemble are a great advertisement for group stability and longevity. 

The inclusion of Huw Jacob on the Saturday-night line-up at Festival Pavilion - he's a singer/songwriter, and a mediocre singer/songwriter at that - seemed an abdication of responsibility by the MJF committee. They instantly redeemed themselves with the other half of the double bill: Liane Carroll is the jazz spirit personified. Heartbreaking on slow tunes, raucous on the fast numbers, she is assured enough to induct Leonard Cohen, Steely Dan and Tom Waits into the Great American Songbook - the Holy Grail of contemporary jazz singers. And piano and voice have not been so happily melded since Nina Simone (the last person to attempt a jazz Suzanne, incidentally). Carroll is also blessed with an outsized character, and listeners bask in the glow of her all-round sunniness. 

Pascal Makonese and Clive Hunte

The discovery of MJF 2010 was Papa Miles (St Ann's Square, Sunday 25 July), led by Pascal Makonese, a Zimbabwean singer resident in Manchester. Here, declamatory griot-style singing met the eerie, if disjointed, loveliness of Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis. Neil Yates provided long, stratospheric notes on trumpet, and added another cultural influence with a fol-de-rol penny whistle. The existence of Papa Miles is certainly one of the blessings of globalisation. Makonese himself, tranced-out and blissful, communicated in a purely human way, and projected the simplicity that lay beneath the abstract surface.       

Indeed, Papa Miles made  the next attraction at St Ann's Square seem decidedly retro: Dean Masser is a tenor saxophonist with a booting approach to bebop, pitched somewhere between Sonny Rollins and Arnett Cobb. Glass Mystery (Bridgewater Hall foyer, Monday 26 July), dedicated to the music of neglected trumpeter/composer Tom Harrell, offered a more subtle evocation of the glories of contemporary jazz. Harrell is a musician's musician, and trumpeter John Hulme, tenor saxophonist Peter Lyons and pianist Adam Fairhill - musicians' musicians all - did justice to the lyrical, swinging, relaxed, sad and uncluttered beauty of his music. They were towed by a rhythm team from a generation down: bassist Gavin Barras and drummer Gaz Hughes.  

There was something incongruous, not to say transgressive, about Richard Scott's Lightning Ensemble in St Ann's Church (Monday, 26 July). Phil Marks' distinctive drum style is a faithful mirror of his personality. Anxious, anarchic, scattershot, yes, but never reverent. And Scott's Buchla Lightning rods, a descendent of the theremin and likewise activated by hand gesture, sounded at times shockingly like the noise of lower body functions. Stephen Grew's Cecil Taylor-like piano proceeded in fits and starts, which is the effect it has on some listeners. They were marvellous, even if the restricted sight-lines of the church impeded my view of Marks in action (at least part of his appeal is visual). Far more in keeping were the saxophone and electronics duo Orfeo 5, the first in this electro-acoustic triple bill, whose rarefied twittering and long, keening notes struck the right sepulchral tone. The Rudnicki/Postie Electric Duo also exploited the 'rave from the grave' aspect of the occasion, with the techno beats (ungainly, to my ear) firmly placing the emphasis on 'rave'.

Neil Yates

Is Neil Yates our own Tom Harrell? Is this brilliant and quietly innovative trumpeter our best-known unknown? The Stockport-born Yates has worked his way through Edward II, the Brand New Heavies and his own New Origins band, honing his own special brand of Celtic and jazz. In Yates' solos one may hear a flash of Miles Davis or a Chet Baker rumination mingled with the bravura rolls, turns and cranns of Celtic music. Cool Ceol Quartet (Festival Pavilion, Tuesday 27 July) is his vehicle for jazz/folk fusion. Guitarist Zsolt Bende is the most conventionally jazz, with his Tal Farlow-like flurries, but percussionist Tom Chapman augments a spare kit with a cajon drum (that's the box you sit upon and beat). Even the straight-down-the-line standard If I Should Lose You is enlivened by the hypnotic thrumming of Yates' bodhran. Percy Pursglove is a bassist without flaw. A magnificent hybrid, and some of the most purely pleasurable music of the Festival. 

Simcock/Walker/Swallow/Nussbaum at BOTW
Transatlantic supergroup Simcock/Walker/Swallow/Nussbaum (RNCM, Tuesday 27 July) started with Mike Walker's Greatest Hit, Clockmaker, and ended with Steve Swallow's Greatest Hit, Ladies In Mercedes. In-between, all the evidence showed that the guitarist and bassist are the two funkiest musicians alive, with drummer Adam Nussbaum close behind. Piano wunderkind Gwilym Simcock, meanwhile, with his preternaturally developed sense of rhythm and harmony, is an orchestra in himself. Tunes like Simcock's You Won't Be Around To See (based on the changes of Softly As In A Morning Sunrise, although there was nothing Softly about it) and Nussbaum's We Three were fantastic displays of ensemble interplay and bravura virtuosity. And yes, Mike Walker is a super-nova soloist and once more confirmed the truism that 'local' and 'world-renowned' are not mutually exclusive terms. But there is a clipped emotionalism in his writing, evident in Wallenda's Last Stand and, particularly, When You Hold Her, that is infinitely affecting. 

Rioghnach Connolly and Stuart McCallum at Matt and Phred's 

And thence to Matt and Phred's to see the great Rioghnach Connolly with Stuart McCallum. This must be what it was like when Sandy Denny was playing folk clubs early in her career: seldom has conspicuous greatness been more accessible. But Connolly, if possible, is even better: more versatile, at least. She is heir to the entire Irish folk tradition, and so her span extends some five or six hundred years beyond her age (which, chronologically speaking, is young). Or, as here, she can fast-forward in time, and sing the future soul songs of Stuart McCallum, without modifying her style one bit. 

More, Connolly is a free spirit and strikingly self-assured. How did she handle the Disruptive Element in a rowdy crowd at Matt and Phred's? She got off the stage and pressed the Disruptive Element to her bosom, and, without breaking her step or dimming her twinkle, she danced him right off the floor and out of the club. Connolly is so good, she's liable to dance off the floor and out of the club herself, at any moment. McCallum is lucky to have her as his collaborator for this brief moment. 

Arun Ghosh at BOTW
Idris Rahman at BOTW
Arun Ghosh played a blinder at BOTW on Thursday. If the Jazz On 3 broadcast (which I haven't mentioned: it starred the Arun Ghosh Quintet, Stuart McCallum and Simcock/Walker/Swallow/Nussbaum and went out live from BOTW on the night of Monday 26 July)… If the Jazz On 3 broadcast saw Arun Ghosh seize his opportunity with both hands, by Thursday, on the same stage, he was relaxed enough to let the music take flight. His is a singular talent: he charmed watchers and cued his fellow players with body language as sinuous as the high-note phrases of his clarinet, and was answered by the fiery tenor saxophone of Idris Rahman. A powerful team: a Coleman and Cherry for our times. 

Corey Mwamba at BOTW
If the music is solidly in the Indo-Jazz tradition, the attitude is pure Manc indie-rock ("Thank you everybody in the Northern Quarter, in Dhakar, in Jamaica…" he declaimed on R3), whilst a quote from the opening cadenza of Rhapsody in Blue, grafted onto Longsight Lagoon, displayed his first-class classical education. Perhaps the combination explains his swaggering meticulousness. Ghosh is a benevolent dictator who knows exactly what he wants from his musicians. Ah, but vibraphonist Corey Mwamba is an untamed force, and he pummelled his vibes to the point of collapse with flying, flaming mallets. The Manchester rhythm team of Sylvan Richardson and Myke Wilson acquitted themselves well: Richardson is a rock (how different from Richardson the flowery melodist of Andy Sheppard's In Co-Motion). The final tune, Caliban's Revenge, with all three frontline musicians improvising furiously, buoyed by Wilson's sweeping power, actually transcended the prevalent mood of jubilation, and achieved thrilling, truth-of-the-moment intensity.             

Asaf Sirkis at BOTW
The Asaf Sirkis Trio, opening, presented a study in contrast. In place of extrovert bravura, Sirkis weaved a shimmering web of cymbal lines and silver chimes and spun loose, steadily evolving patterns of delicately placed accents. He closed his eyes, deep in concentration, smiling like a diamond cat, and choreographed a nimble ballet inside his head. Kit Downes, on keys, is a searching player: too astringent for some, but he made every note count. Silence and space were as important as the notes. Yaron Stavi, fibrous and funky on electric bass guitar, was the cohesive force. Beautiful Sirkis originals like Other Stars And Planets and Ima gradually revealed themselves in full luminosity.   

Edward Barnwell
Two piano recitals illustrated the classical/jazz exchange. Edward Barnwell (Bridgewater Hall foyer, Wednesday 28 July) was, unusually, playing in a trio, although Rob Turner, for once, seemed dispensable (suffering from food poisoning, poor chap, and playing his second gig of the day: it was 1pm) and Jon Thorne, the advertised bassist, was away doing something else (sorry, I didn't catch the name of his replacement). It didn't matter: Barnwell dominated everything with his tempestuous, melodic surges and sweeping arpeggios. There was something of the gaiety of Dave Brubeck in the lighter, jazzier moments, and something Romantic (capital 'R') about the darker moments, where he unselfconsciously spoke the tongue of Beethoven and Schubert. He played a new suite, an unfaltering succession of beauty, incident and melody. Of course, a suite has this advantage: it gives you an excuse not to talk between numbers. Once or twice, as the applause resounded, Barnwell glanced anxiously at the microphone, and then thought better of it. Everything he needs to communicate comes directly from the piano.         

If Edward Barnwell was channeling Beethoven, then Les Chisnall was channeling Ravel and Debussy (St Ann's Church, Friday 30 July) in a solo recital that followed the principle of free-association. Bach-like counterpoint would dissolve into dissonance, and segue into the rich, sensuous language of Debussy, before resolving itself as the melody of a jazz standard, like (to quote an actual example), I'll Get By. It was improvisation, but drew from classical materials as much as jazz: Chopin and Bill Evans. The music was also unabashedly emotional. Chisnall's touch is exquisite and the sacred space of St Ann's provided an ideal setting for his delicate inventions. He offered Mike Walker's Clockmaker (it's second airing in a week) as a beautiful chorale from the twelfth century. 

Stuart McCallum at BOTW

The triple bill of Stuart McCallum, The Golden Age of Steam and trioVD (Festival Pavilion, Friday 30 July) offered a first-class example of the New Thing. As with most revolutions, the change is technologically-driven. McCallum is an innovator in his use of loops, samples and pedals, and his new work is a mind-boggling sonic mesh, coming from just one man, his guitar and laptop. Echo-effects were also judiciously deployed by Neil Yates in Ceol Cool. The loop - which enables a phrase to be replayed endlessly - is widely used, and it's easy to see the appeal: every musician can become his own orchestra. But both developments are predicated on repetition, which encourages predictability, the death of jazz. So there has been a compensating rise in rhythmic agility. Tom Giles in TGAOS is a good example, constantly shifting rhythms about. Jazz drummers have always prized the rhythmically oblique, but now the drum melodists are on an equal footing with the frontline instrumentalists. 

The New Thing is resolutely non-pyrotechnical. Technique is not an end in itself, but a skill to be placed at the service of the music. TGAOS tunes, frequently sparked by everyday encounters, resemble a kind of surrealist programme music. There is something boffinish about James Allsup with his skittish tenor saxophone and endearing eccentricity. Kit Downes, on organ, played the Hammond organ like a church organ and listened, listened, listened (also a feature of the New Thing, acquired from free jazz practise). There is something unashamedly escapist about TGAOS. The music admits to influences from pulp fiction and SF, offset by very English whimsy and wistfulness. 

trioVD: Chris Bussey, Chris Sharkey and Christophe de Bezenac 

And they were comprehensively blown away by the orgiastic, visceral attack of trioVD, but then who wouldn't be? This is punk-jazz at it's zenith. Imagine if Jimi Hendrix, Ginger Baker and Evan Parker went to see the Sex Pistols at the 100 Club and decided to form a group together. If trioVD had emerged in 1976, we might all be living on a jazz planet by now. As it is, their audacity, vision and iconoclasm is timeless. 

Again, here are the silences, dynamics and contrasts of the New Thing, but executed at such a pitch of intensity that even the silences are explosive. Drummer Chris Bussey is clearly on a level with saxophonist Christophe de Bezenac and guitarist Chris Sharkey. The former gleefully abandons himself to vertigo while the latter is as pugnacious as Marlon Brando in a sweat-stained vest. To hear the three bounce off of each other and tumble into a frenzied wall of sound, only to bounce right back, abruptly swap beat and start over, is one of the most exhilarating experiences music can offer. And now the old technology let them down. That is, a string from Chris Sharkey's guitar broke. For some reason a replacement was impossible to find, so the group ditched their prepared set and sailed into unknown territory. This only added to the freshness and vitality. My notes are reduced to an excited scrawl: "Mahavishnu with a punk veneer…" Which conveys the enthusiasm but is an inadequate description. Actually, trioVD are unique and bear no resemblance to any group in the world. They're so far ahead of the vanguard that they constitute a New Thing all of their own. 

This isn't the place to end this round-up. TrioVD are atypical MJF fare. They're too dangerous, too audacious and too edgy. Surroundings (St Ann's Church, Saturday 31 July), a work by Neil Yates commissioned by MJF, is more in the MJF line: ambitious, lyrical, incontestably high quality, high concept, new, and rooted in place. Surroundings was site-specific, with sundry brass and reed players deployed about St Ann's Church for full antiphonal effect. At several points, four trumpeters were stationed on the balcony, presumably to emulate angels on high, and emitted long, pure notes that echoed around the walls of the church. St Ann's itself became the lead instrument, and outshone all the other soloists. Except for Yates himself, stalking between the altar and central aisle (where most of the solo action happened), who was in complete musical control of the Church. Where the cloisters had previously been full of sacred dust and empty air, now, miraculously, wherever Neil Yates pointed his horn, that space became full of beautiful, impressionistic music. 

Thanks to Eva Navarro for the Albert Square and concert photos

Friday 23 July 2010

State of the Heart: Manchester Jazz Festival 2010

A travesty of this article, headed (I cringe as I type) 'All That Jazz', appeared in City Life, Manchester Evening News, 23.7.10. This is the unexpurgated text, and a more accurate representation of the author's views.

Every good festival has its own identity. So it is with Manchester Jazz Festival. The 15th MJF, like the first, back in 1996, is strong on individuality. The policy of the MJF promoters (Steve Mead and Mick Waterfield) is inclusive enough to embrace Zimbabwean songster Papa Miles (St Ann's Square, Sunday 25, 1pm) and Goldfrapp-wannabe Rodina (Festival Pavilion, Tuesday 27, 8pm). Traditionalists and mainstreamers might grumble, but the Festival reinstates the definition of jazz as "the sound of surprise".  

As ever, the programme mixes homegrown talents with players of national and international renown. Local tortoises often compare favourably with celebrity hares.

Jim Hart: Chetham's Class of '96

Of course, the distinction between tortoise and hare is sometimes subtle. Gwilym Simcock - playing with UK/US supergroup Simcock/Walker/Swallow/Nussbaum (RNCM, Tuesday 27, 7.30pm) - and Jim Hart, playing with NY trumpeter Ralph Alessi (Festival Pavilion, Friday 23, 7.30pm), met and started playing together when both were students at Chetham's School of Music (circa '94-'96). 

"I love Manchester. It's one of my favourite places," says Hart, a vibes-player of blinding momentum. "I always said I would go back, if things didn't work out in London, but I seem to have got stuck." 
And Arun Ghosh's appearance, co-starring with the Asaf Sirkis Trio (BOTW, Thursday 29, 9pm), is virtually a homecoming for the charismatic clarinet-player. Ghosh, "conceived in Calcutta and bred in Bolton", is currently making waves in London with his unique brand of Mancunian Indo-jazz. 

"It needed to be done," says Ghosh, of his move to London, "to get a fresh outlook. But I learned everything I needed to learn while I was in Manchester." He identifies a specific Manchester aesthetic: "The main thing is that sense of wanting the music to be accessible. If you're going to go on-stage and play, you have to believe in what you're doing, and say it with conviction." 

Arun's fervour is communicated not only through his clarinet, which is stately and joyous, but through his body language (sashay and sway as much as swagger). Ghosh has been known to transport a rowdy crowd at Matt and Phred's to an altogether loftier place. His attack is gentle yet rigorous, and his simple tunes - often revolving around an Indian-style twelve-beat cycle - grow in detail, complexity and intensity until even the most inattentive onlooker is compelled to listen. "Yeah I think Man United had played that night," says Ghosh, reminded of the occasion. "I feel we can win people over, if I have the right people with me, because we believe in what we're doing."  

The right people for the MJF gig are Manchester rhythm team Myke Wilson and Sylvan Richardson, Corey Mwamba - a whirlwind on vibraphone - from Derby, and London saxophonist Idris Rahman ("you hear Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry weave lines in and out of each other, and that's something we're doing a lot," says Ghosh). More than an ex-pat, Arun Ghosh is an ambassador for Manchester. 

His erstwhile sparring partner, saxophonist Nat Birchall, shares half the bill (BOTW, Friday 23, 8.30pm) with Marshall Allen, a mainstay of the Sun Ra Arkestra. "I'm honoured to be playing the same night as Marshall Allen," says Birchall. "He's one of my all-time favourite players." 

Birchall is one jazz musician who stayed. "I don't have much experience of jazz anywhere other than Manchester," he admits. His music draws on the gentle side of John Coltrane for inspiration. The new album, Guiding Spirit, is rapturously lyrical, and too beautiful not to be spiritual, with an urgency that keeps it from being merely pretty. 

The realities of the jazz life haven't altogether dispelled Birchall's sense of high purpose. "Once you're determined to follow a certain route, you're got to make the best of it. Sometimes you're lucky to be with like-minded players. Other times you're working in adverse conditions, but you carry on and do it anyway. I always try to put everything into it, and play with soul and feeling." 

Not as overt as the Coltrane influence, Birchall's first love is ska/reggae. Armed with this knowledge, Guiding Spirit takes on an entirely new light. Pioneering JA hornmen Tommy McCook and Cedric Brooks had a direct, uncluttered eloquence that feeds directly into Birchall's style. Similarly, the harmonically simple themes and hypnotic basslines are retentions from a golden age of Jamaican music. It seems that the secret of finding one's own voice is to wait, however long, for your influences to crystallise. In Birchall, the formative passions of the youthful reggae fan are mysteriously reconfigured in the mature musician. "A saxophone player's sound is largely determined by the sound we have in our heads," he says. "I'm getting to the stage where I can say the music is 'pure', in the sense that it manifests itself through me, without my conscious mind affecting the outcome." 

Other prophets without honour include Neil Yates, whose Surroundings (St Ann's Church, Saturday 31, 7pm), a commission from MJF, is a piece for full orchestra with a starring role for St Ann's Church itself. With the instruments scattered around for antiphonal effect, the building, with its unique acoustic and sacred ambience, is the star turn of Surroundings

Zoe Chiotis: A slinky siren... 

Pianist John Ellis is versatile enough to handle any musical situation - here he's accompanying Zimbabwean Papa Miles - but he is also a composer, a producer (the owner of Limefield Studio) and a charter member of the Odbod Collective, a top-notch group of Manchester creatives. Other Odbods include Zoe Chiotis, a slinky siren with spellbinding ways (St Ann's Square, Saturday 31, 5pm), and her stylistic opposite: the extraordinary Rioghnach Connolly, whose voice is so soulful that it seems older than her physical age by about three hundred years. The splendour of Riognach Connolly, a transplant to Manchester from her native Ireland, can only be hinted at here, so do see her with her band, Honeyfeet (Matt and Phred's, Friday 23, 10pm) or in a new group with Stuart McCallum (Matt and Phred's, Tuesday 27, 10pm). 

Guitarist McCallum, by the way, has blazed a quietly innovative trail with his loops, samples and pedals, and is so inherently Mancunian that London jazz critic John Fordham once mistook him for a Big Issue seller. He can also be seen with improvising trio Baylis/Howard/McCallum (Festival Pavilion, Friday 30, 12.30pm) and, later the same day, in a solo set alongside The Golden Age of Steam and trioVD (Festival Pavilion, 8pm). McCallum, a true homegrown guitar hero, might be the hardest working man in Manchester show-business. 

Tuesday 13 July 2010

Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp, The Spaceheads

Carlton Club, Manchester, Monday 12 July 

The sound of Spaceheads occupies the margins between trance dance, free jazz and psychedelia. It comprises of Andy Diagram's blissed-out trumpet - electronically enhanced by loops, echoes, octave doubling and fractal patterning - and Dick Harrison's drums, locating rhythm and pulse with every crash and bang, and serving as the perfect launchpad for Diagram's kosmic klaxon. 

They've been away for too long, doing things that come to all of us in time - raising families, planting trees, reforming James etc. So there was a preponderance of old tunes in the set, and a welcome chance to revisit dislocated dancefloor faces like Trance Figure 8. 

Improvising comes as second nature to Spaceheads, and the search for fresh discoveries began in earnest when the duo were joined by Orchestre Marcel Duchamp's Vincent Berthelet on bass. Making fresh discoveries and striking vital grooves are not mutually exclusive activities for Spaceheads. It comes as a shock to realise that Diagram's tabletop of wires and wonder, so state-of-the-art twenty years ago, now seems actually primitive. Older spectators may feel nostalgic for a time when rave culture could embrace two men armed with technology, brio and imagination, intent on replicating the impact of Bitches Brew with just trumpet and drums. Their light show, meanwhile, was quaintly redolent of Pink Floyd at Middle Earth, circa 1967.

The sensibility of headliners Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp is post-punk, and the instrumentation is appropriately bizarre - trombone, marimba, fiddle, guitar, drums and double-bass. Their surreal affiliations are not only signposted by the name but by a resolute rejection of all musical and social convention. Singer and violinist Liz Moscarola is the model of charming, aggressive femininity, alternately little-girl-lost and barking. She proclaims emotional vulnerability in evocative yet oblique stanzas. I didn't understand a word ("the house is coming"?) yet was profoundly moved. The rhythm team of Anne Cardinaud and Wilf Plum generated a clattering yet well-calibrated groove. Big-toned trombonist Seth Bennett is one of the loudest brass men in the business: conversely, the light-toned guitarist Mael Saletes is one of the quietest grunge guitarists in the business.   

Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp are surreal in the true sense: more than art, it's a way of life; of living on the edge of your senses. The players perform with a conviction that, in other circumstances, would be dedicated to fringe religion. And their music defines the epithet so beloved of Patti Smith: 'beauty will be convulsive or not at all." Very romantic. Very subversive. Very Gallic.

The Complete Chris Ackroyd vs Vladimir Putin 1-61

Chris Ackroyd, who manages to lead a fulfilled life without a computer, asked if I could send a message to the world. Well, I sometimes have...