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

1 comment:

  1. What about JD73 who lit up St Anns SQ on Sun 25th?


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