Wednesday 31 July 2013

Manchester Jazz Festival, Tuesday, 30 July - John Ellis, Billy Moon, Moss Project

John Ellis

John Ellis Trio
Bridgewater Hall Foyer 

It’s a song-based set of the familiar and not so familiar. His first words are, “I am here, don’t reject me”, which is not so much about the condition of the exposed performer as the Creator reminding that He’s available for reassurance, feeling slightly hurt at the neglect of His subjects. It sets the tone of the show: gospel fervour, trance-like concentration, inward-looking but willing to reach out. This trio performance by a Manchester pianist/singer who has always been there, and who, like the Creator, has sometimes been taken for granted, is a triumph and a revelation.  

It’s so spontaneous that the accompanying musicians - the Turners Pete and Rob, on bass and drums respectively - watch and listen with attentiveness, and perhaps a little wonder. Ellis follows the inspiration of the moment. So the next song is ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’, the most subversive statement of atheism ever to gain entry to the Great American Songbook, and Ellis is simultaneously channeling the cool of swinging hipster Mose Allison, whilst essaying the gospel cadences of Abdullah Ibrahim. 

The hour-long set is halfway through when Ellis, who has been following the flow in an unbroken sequence up till now, turns to address the respectable patrons of Bridgewater Hall for the first time. “Dirty fracking bankers,” he says. “Dirty fracking bankers,” he repeats. He seems to have latched onto the phrase as the best way to shake off his self-induced trance. “Dirty fracking bankers,” he announces for a third time, before going on to profess undying love for the Stone Roses and praising their songs as the culmination of the folk tradition. He proceeds to sing a rapturous ‘Shoot You Down’ and follows this, again following the principle of ironic juxtaposition, with ‘If I Had A Hammer’. 

No, this is astonishing actually. No one has achieved such feats of transformation with songs - turning glib platitudes into sublime statements of the human condition - since Nina Simone. More than once, I was reminded of the Nina & Piano album, and my praise doesn’t come any higher than that.     

It was impossible to predict what he was going to do, or say, next. What did he do next? ‘Norwegian Wood’. There was always veiled sleaze in the song, sure, but Ellis, with his ability to strip away the petty guise of anodyne pop, conveys the full atrophied spirituality and mania of Lennon’s original. He achieves this by dispelling all the smug jollity to reveal the full depth of self-abasement and the stupidity of a random act of destructiveness. Musically, he adds Afro-Cuban rhythms and a Yoruban chant. 

This is dark, dark, dark, and Ellis above all seeks to entertain. So he chooses to send everyone off happy with a favourite from My Fair Lady, ‘Wouldn’t It Be Loverly’, and, for good measure, gives it a ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’ bounce. But Ellis being Ellis, he still manages to illuminate a human truth that eluded every previous version. “All I want is a room somewhere…” How simple! How modest! How impossible!   

Billy Moon, Moss Project 
Festival Pavilion Teepee 

Billy Moon

A string quartet - an instant signifier of intimacy and melancholia - A.A. Milne readings, tinkly piano and teacups. Billy Moon are very English, and my response is very English too, which is, essentially, to blush and say, “Not now, old chap, there’s a time and a place, don’t you know?” I consider I have a high tolerance of twee, but Billy Moon really push the envelope of twee. Having said that, I’m in a minority, and a mesmerised crowd gave Matthew Bourne, Seaming Tu, Olivia Moore and Semay Wu - who, collectively, are Billy Moon - a rapturous ovation. 

Reciting over music is a problem area for me, I admit, but Moss Project propose a novel way of combining music and literature with their new album, What Do You See When You Close Your Eyes? It’s a CD encased within the hard covers of a book, and in the book are short stories by distinguished writers, with each story a response to an original piece of music contained within. It’s a brilliant way of overcoming the dread functionality of the CD, and turning it into an object of art on par with an LP. I’ve read the stories, and can honestly say that many of them are wonderful. 

Moss Project

For this performance, Moss Project have enlisted an author to read the stories between numbers. I’m getting ready to feel awkward and English again. 

In the event, it works brilliantly. This because the author, Lawrence Norfolk, is a personable fellow who reads well. His delivery and ease have presumably been honed by book readings up and down the land. Cleverly, he cherry-picks the very best stories, namely ‘The Angel’, his own ‘Caravans’, and ‘Bubble’. But most of all it works because Moss Project are on cracking form, and play with an intensity and assurance I’ve not seen in them before. Alice Zawadzki’s violin has become a beautiful foil for her voice, and is similarly passionate and adept. Moss Freed has assimilated the Pat Metheny and John McLaughlin influences into a distinctive freewheeling style: clean and lustrous and sharp-cutting. Marek Dorcik subdivides each beat into clipped fractions, in the best funky manner. I might miss the wonderful Ruth Goller, but stand-in bassist Kevin Glasgow rises to the challenge magnificently. 

And the relationship between text and music becomes more apparent at close range. One can more readily appreciate the darkness that lies beneath the lightness and buoyancy of ‘Bubble’. 


  1. Thanks for this marvellous review!

  2. Thanks, Eva. The first song mentioned in the Ellis review is "I Am Love" by Linda Womack (Sam Cooke's daughter) and Cecil Womack (Bobby's brother) from the Womack & Womack album 'Conscience'. "A sadly overlooked classic album of songs from the mid-80s", John writes me. A song he performed that I didn't mention, mainly because I couldn't place it, was "It's So Hard" by John Lennon, from the 'Imagine' album. This was a bit remiss of me, because I actually own a copy of 'Imagine'. I think John's hipster treatment put me off. I was thinking Mose Allison or maybe Oscar Brown Jnr.

  3. Now a comparison with Nina Simone gets the curiosity going! Moss Project sound interesting too Mike. Good to catch up on some reviews.

  4. I rather liked the way Raglan Road segued into If I Had A Hammer ...

  5. Raglan Road? Wasn't it Shoot You Down?


  6. At first, I thought I was imagining it, and thought it was She Moved Through The Fair. Then he played it (whatever 'it' was, you could of course be right and what you heard makes sense to me!) again ... and the snatch of tune sounded like, and fitted with, the lyrics to Raglan Road.

    We could both be right ;~)

    All the sets I heard on Tuesday made it a memorable day: I also went to the two between Jon Ellis and the Moss Project double bill, and can report that Cusp were as consistently impressive as they always are, and The Weave were new to me and flew.

    PS I found this blog by googling "fracking bankers" and will add that Jon Ellis also mentioned that someone needed to say it, Jon Thorne wasn't around so he wasn't going to say it.


  7. Apologies for spelling his name wrong, and more than once (oops!), it should of course be John Ellis.

  8. Anonymous, Lovely to get a response. Well, I have John Ellis' ear, so we can go direct to the source and ask the man himself. As I remember it, the "Dirty Fracking Bankers" remark served as an introduction to Stone Roses' 'Shoot You Down' (which I had to look up, I only have a dim knowledge of the Stone Roses' repertoire) which then segued into 'If I Had A Hammer'. His thing was partly radical reinterpretation, and just after the "DFB" dig and the affectionate Jon Thorne remembrance, he did say that he thought the Stone Roses were the culmination of the folk process, hence the resemblance to a folk song like 'Raglan Road', I suppose. Pity I missed Cusp and The Weave. I can believe they were good. MJF maintains a healthy level of quality control. Mike

  9. I don't mind being wrong as long as he doesn't mind my having spelled his first name wrong ;~)

    The reference to Jon Thorne was noticed by me because Jon was in the original Cusp line-up ... and I thought the DFB point was repeated until it got a response from more than just me, somewhere right at the back.

    My knowledge of Irish music is far greater than my appreciation of the Stone Roses but I wouldn't want to be the one to admit that on the streets of their home town.

    The standard of music at this years' MJF was excellent imo, although I only caught some of the mid-week gigs.

    All the best, Mike!

    Anonymous Helen

  10. Helen,

    I remember collecting mail in the Old Trafford sorting office (like you do) about a year ago, and Jon Thorne was next in the queue. He told me then that he was about to move to the Isle of Wight. He was going to make way for the “young bloods”, he said, which was a poignant remark for me, because I remember when Thorne was a “young blood”. Suffice to say, his super bass playing and personal charisma are much missed on the Manchester scene. He combined an interest in folk and jazz, which perhaps isn’t as unusual as all that (pace Times 4 at MJF) but always refreshing when you see it in action. Indeed, I frequently bump into John Ellis at Oddfellows in Middleton on Monday nights, at a folk session we both attend. I touch on the subject in some of my other blogs.

    It's nice chatting, and nice that you've broken your anonymity,


  11. Whoa, Helen, what about this, from John:

    "I do remember slipping into a short piano version of "Raglan Road" around the "Shoot You Down"/"If I Had A Hammer" part of the set. It was very short but I'm glad that person heard it. Thanks again for the review. Fantastic. I do want to do more song trio gigs next year. I'm going to try for some festivals, the thing for me is having a good piano which is not always easy to get. Your fine words will come in handy I think, thanks Mike. See you soon at Oddfellows hopefully."

  12. Hooray, thank you, John!

    And, Mike, we were both right ... what a great outcome: ideal, after a gig with such a beguiling arrangement of Norwegian Wood ;~)


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