Wednesday 28 August 2013

Peter Bocking on… Pianists: The Bocking Memorial Blog #1

To pianists, pianos are always: 

1. Dirty. Pianists are obsessively neat and clean. A well-known British pianist always wipes the keyboard before he plays. 

2. Out of tune. Even though I’ve only met one who carried a tuning key and could use it. This doesn’t stop them moaning about the intonation of the rest of us. “Trumpets are a bit flat.” So would you be, pal, after 15 pints. 

3. In the wrong place. If you notice, pianists like to be on the right side of the stage (from the stage). This could be because their right profile is the better one, or that the hand that looks best is on that side, the one with the bling. 

4. Never good enough. Pianists complain about the action, tone, volume, tuning, height of the stool, make, colour, shape, condition, age and the carving on the legs. 

Pianists are lofty creatures far superior to the rest of the band. This comes from having the only instrument you can rest music on (try resting it on your bugle). 

In addition, pianists turn up with a briefcase and spend their time at the bar chatting up the talent while the rest of us toil up the backstairs with the gear. Pianists always regard themselves as the natural leaders of the band. This could be due to the fact that they can play more notes at one time than the rest of us. “I’ve got ten digits, they are loaded, and I’m not afraid to use them.” Or because they’re the only ones who can play with one hand, and thus are able to conduct. It’s either that or a royal wave. 

And pianists want to play everything - every part and twiddle. They assume that their interpretation is the one arranged by the Almighty and orchestrated by St Peter. 

(By the way, none of the above is to be construed as applying to anyone living or dead or in-between. Nor can it be attributed to pianist envy.) 

#1 in a series of Peter Bocking memorial blogs, selected from his prolific email correspondence to the author. Peter Bocking (1942-2009), a genius guitarist, wit and free thinker, "conquered America without leaving his armchair". See also: -

Saturday 24 August 2013

Confessions of an eBay Trader #3: Three Week Hero

So there was I, contentedly playing a newly acquired copy of Three Week Hero by PJ Proby, when I became aware of shouting from the next room. It was my partner, and what she was saying was, “Why are you torturing me?” “But Lozenge [pet name],” I said, “this is Three Week Hero by PJ Proby, and the backing group are Led Zeppelin.” God bless her, she responded with the undeceived clarity of a music-lover innocent of such phrases as ‘1st pressing red/plum Atlantic’ and ‘turquoise lettering first album’. She said simply, “That doesn’t make it better.” 

Actually, I own to quite liking his droll equation of femininity and elemental forces in ‘The Day That Lorraine Came Down’, but, yes, I knew what she was getting at. The big ballad, ‘Refections (Of Your Face)’ definitely tipped the balance. It was only the BGO reissue, and not worth the pain.  

Friday 23 August 2013

Some Thoughts on The Lost Chord

What have Jimmy Durante, Arthur Sullivan. Phil Minton, The Moody Blues and Michael Giacchino, composer of the soundtrack of Lost, have in common? Each in their own way was preoccupied with the search for The Lost Chord. Or, in the latter case, the Lost chord.  

‘I’m the Guy Who Found the Lost Chord’ by Jimmy Durante nearly made me choke on my Welsh Rarebit when I heard it as a lad on the radio. Since then, I’ve developed an immunity to comedy records and Welsh Rarebit, yet it cracked me up all over again when I tracked it recently on a copy of The Very Best of Jimmy Durante (1964, MGM C 985). And, after obsessive replays, the song still has the ability to make me laugh out loud. 

Was there ever a more accurate evocation of the euphoria of making music? This, with a barbed hint that such euphoria is tinged with madness?

Mental health is a running theme of the song, established from the very first line. “Sitting at my piano the other day, my mind was ill at ease”. Aside: “They were coming to take it away that afternoon…” And, later, “They said Mozart was mad…” (I’m pretty sure they didn’t). “They said Puccini was mad…” (ditto). “They said Louis was mad”. Voices off: “Who’s Louis?” “He was my uncle, and he was mad.”   

And what is the lost chord that so enraptured Schnozzle? I might be wrong, but to my ears it sounds like an F minor with a diminished fifth. It would hardly give Messiaen sleepless nights, but it was sufficiently outre to blow Durante’s mind. 

At the time of recording, in the fifties, USA was so straight-laced  that an F minor with a diminished 5th could only be the product of an outsider, a nonconformist, or a lunatic, or all three combined: a jazzman! Durante was not a jazzman: he was the the last incandescent bloom of the vaudeville tradition. His delight at the freaky chord he’s stumbled across is clearly an aberration, a symptom of his unhinged mental state. The brassy Hollywood razzamatazz that accompanies ‘ITGWFTLC’ represents the norm from which he’s deviated.

Interestingly, his professed style of “improvising symphonies” anticipates modern, techno-enhanced methods of music-making. As he describes it, “My right hand was playing Mozart’s ‘Minuet’, and at the same time, my left hand was playing ‘Have A Banana’ from Carmen, and at the same time my mouth was whistling the sextet from Luicini [?], and at the same time, what do you think my foot was doing? While keeping time it was cracking walnuts. See, I had to eat too.”

If it’s not giving away trade secrets, I myself used the GarageBand app of Facebook to make a new creation by splicing Sandy Denny’s ‘Late November’ together with James Booker’s ‘Junco Partner’. I feel as happy with the result as Jimmy Durante did with his Lost Chord. There’s still work to do. The first bars of the Denny song need to be re-harmonised, as there’s just a faint chance they might be recognised, which will get me in trouble with the publishers. 

The song that Durante was referencing was, of course, Arthur Sullian’s ‘The Lost Chord’, which is at once sentimental, pious and bonkers, like the best Victoriana. 

Seated one day at the organ, 
I was weary and ill at ease, 
And my fingers wandered idly 
Over the noisy keys. 

Among the significant performances of ‘The Lost Chord’ – and it was the song used for demonstration purposes when the phonograph was unveiled at a press conference in London in 1888, and Enrico Caruso sang it at a benefit concert for the families of the victims of the Titanic in 1912 – the most unexpected is undoubtedly the interpretation recorded by singer Phil Minton and pianist Veryan Weston on Ways (ITM Records, ITM 0020, 1987).

It emerges from a stream of improvisation, hence the title ‘A Wayfarers Prelude to the Lost Chord’, with Weston frenetic and grandiose on keys, and Minton burping, gargling and squalling in the unique Mintonesque style. This leads to a relatively straight account of Sullivan’s ‘The Lost Chord’, which, paradoxically, celebrates improvisation in a formal way, and follows strict musical conventions. Minton can be as stentorian and declamatory as the best (this side comes out in his Mike Westbrook collaborations), and this version of 'Lost Chord' gives a practical demonstration of the interconnectedness of improvisation and insanity. 

I might mention that the Moody Blues had an album called In Search of the Lost Chord. I would expand on this, but I can't presently be bothered to dust off my copy. Suffice to say, this was the record that inspired my friend Alan Parry’s one-liner,  “That chord wasn’t lost, it was mislaid on purpose.”

The chief thing mislaid in the fifth series of Lost (we're catching up with it on Lovefilm Instant) is the plot, although the appeal of the TV fantasy always did rely on a certain suspension of disbelief, critical faculty and mature taste. The scariest thing is the spectacle of so many talented people strung out on coffee, as the suspicion that they’re-making-it-up-as-they're-going-along crystallises into they-don’t know-what-they’re-doing. It transpires that the corporate TV monster, insatiable in its appetite for a hit formula, is far more rapacious and lethal than any lame fog monster on an unchartered, deserted island (albeit, one with a population as large as Manhattan). 

The only person who did know what he was doing, I would suggest, was Michael Giacchino, who composed the soundtrack of Lost, and was chiefly responsible for ensuring that the chief emotional state of the audience was fear, rather than confusion. 

The Lost chord here comes up over the screen title ‘Lost’ which always comes up about seven minutes in, after the bite-sized summary – “Recently, in Lost…” (“We’re going to have to move the island!”, "Son-of-a-bitch!") – and after several scenes of preposterous action with bewildering flashbacks and puzzling flash-forwards. And it’s not so much a chord as a drone that swells to an ominous crescendo, splintering into metallic harmonics. In this culture, as conformist as fifties USA, the only place you can get away with discord is in the soundtrack of a thriller, and Michael Giacchino seizes the opportunity with gusto, aware that uneasy listening is more fulfilling than easy listening.   

Tuesday 6 August 2013

Manchester Jazz Festival - Some Reflections

The Teepee

The Teepee was still up when I passed by yesterday (Monday). It blends nicely with the masonic architecture all around, it’s triangular shape in harmony with the larger triangle of the three-sided Town Hall and complementing, noughts and crosses-style, the circle of the Central Library. 

The Magic Hour on a long hot summer day in the Teepee is around 8pm. That’s when the rays of the declining sun are in the right alignment to project the silhouette of Prince Albert under his canopy onto the white canvas of the Teepee. His stolid presence graced part of the first set by township jazz group Taiwa on Thursday night. But, like his consort, he might not have been amused, because he departed soon after. 

The challenge of all the musicians in the Teepee was how to deal with the loud bongs that emanate from the Town Hall Clock on the hour. There were different reactions. Lots pretended it wasn’t happening. Matthew Bourne of Billy Moon gestured for the music to stop, and patiently waited for eight tolls to sound before he started the song again. With nice serendipity, Laura Jurd finished a beautiful ballad at just the right moment: the reverberations of the last chord hadn't yet faded or the first clapping started when a portentous bong sounded. Best of all, Adam Fairhall played a chime-like figure in counterpoint. You can do that kind of thing with free jazz. 

I found myself worrying about MC Chunky’s drinks order of ten tequilas during the Riot Jazz performance. If I’m not mistaken, he offered to stand the round, which would almost certainly have wiped out his fee for the show (in addition, he promised a beer to the man in the front row, after snatching a spare tequila from his lips in order to gallantly present it to a woman neighbour, and I saw him fulfil the promise after the show). Of course, ten tequilas might have been on the rider of the band’s contract, or MJF may have met the expense, in which case there’s already a sizeable dent in the funding of next year’s Festival. The funding of MJF is ever more precarious, and I noticed concern beneath Steve Mead’s usual light-hearted banter when he appealed for donations. 

The VIP Launch Party, with Steve Mead, far right, and the Mayor of Manchester, second from left

If the worst happens, and MJF does go under, it will be an incalculable loss. The Festival has an identity that places it apart from every other music festival in the land. It strikes a nice balance between populism and originality, even if purists gripe about the absence of ‘proper jazz’. I think Mead’s instincts are right. Cynics may repeat the tired trope about never going broke by underestimating the taste of the public, but MJF prove that new music can find an appreciative audience. Even the difficult stuff, like the free jazz of The Markov Chain, received a generous response. It’s grotesque that music as immediate and universally attractive as the folk-jazz crossover of Times 4 should be relegated to Ken Marley’s shoebox on the grounds of obscurity, while the man himself pays the bills by endlessly warming over ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’. But how would we know about Times 4, were it not for MJF? 

An appreciative MJF audience 

Monday 5 August 2013

Manchester Jazz Festival, final weekend - Kirsty Almeida, Riot Jazz, Iain Ballamy and Gareth Williams, Journal Intime

Kirsty Almeida & The Troubadours, Riot Jazz Brass Band 
Festival Pavilion Teepee, Saturday 3 August  

Kirsty Almeida and John Ellis 

On the debit side, I missed Kirsty’s longtime drummer Rick Weedon. Those tight funk rhythms, so expertly deployed by Bryan Hargreaves, have a way of closing possibilities rather than opening them up. 

On the plus side, every solo Arun Ghosh played on clarinet was a spellbinder. I recall the duo of Ghosh and John Ellis at the Royal Exchange a few years back, in which Ghosh explored the Asian folklore side of his heritage to sublime effect. The introduction to ‘You Make My Heart’, just Ghosh and Ellis, an incomparably sensitive accompanist, brought it all back. 

It surprises that this is the first public appearance of Almeida and Ghosh, despite both being active on the Manchester scene at the same time, and a week they spent making music on a course somewhere (unspecified, Take Five?). It’s a natural fit. Both share an aesthetic based on pure beauty, tinged with the exotic.      

All songs are Almeida originals, except for ‘Treat Me Like Your Mother’, which is by The Dead Weather, and rocks hard. Almeida plainly relishes this excursion into garage rock. Then there are old favourites like ‘Sweet Old Love’ and ‘If You Can’t Make Me Happy’ (which Arun’s clarinet moves closer to New Orleans), and a taste of songs from the new album, which, if the title track Moonbird is typical, is a real charmer. 

Tom Davies is suave in his adopted wildcard role, quietly edging towards anarchy with his free-form bottleneck technique and tapped melodies on the toy piano atop Ellis’ proper grand piano. An antique Spanish guitar is passed between Almeida and Ellis. Matt Owens, the heart of the band, is dependable and solid on bass. 

Kirsty, as ever, is seductive, intelligent, and generous-spirited. But the nerves of her adoring public were jangled by two grand screams. The first, on ‘Sweet Old Love’, possibly scored higher on the Richter Scale than the celebrated scream from ‘It Scares Me’. At such moments, the emotional punch is terrific, and the contrast with the trifling, eager-to-please side of her art couldn’t be greater (time to drop ‘Gather Round’, methinks). Without wanting to consign Almeida into a god-shaped hole, it strikes that at this stage in her career, and newly liberated from a major label, Almeida could productively cultivate her darker side. 

Riot Jazz Brass Band provide an energetic finale to the Saturday festivities, comprising three trumpets, three trombones, a reggae MC and dominating everything, musically and physically, a great big sousaphone. 

A marching band no less (if the impressively active drummer could be persuaded to downsize from full kit to portable snare), with the marching band propensity to mix diverse styles. There are echoes of mariachi, Hungarian gypsies, New Orleans second-line and the pasodoble from Spain. And that’s just one tune (the third of the evening, if memory serves), before they even begin to mash-up Guns n Roses (‘Living on a Prayer’) and Human League (‘Don’t You Want Me, Baby’). 

MC Chunky is a personable guide, offering freestyle, self-referential exhortations, ordering ten tequilas for all the band and later buying a pint for the man in the front row who missed out on the spare tequila. It sums up the evening really: less of a gig and more of a party. 

Iain Ballamy and Gareth Williams 
Festival Pavilion Teepee, Sunday 4 August

Gareth Williams and Iain Ballamy

A balm to the soul. Iain Ballamy always possessed an attractive tone, but lyricism and beauty are qualities that tend to deepen with the best saxophonists. For those of us who haven’t been keeping up, or who missed Ballamy’s performance with Richard Illes’ Miniature Brass Emprium at last year’s MJF, this set may have been a revelation.  

He pointedly called the first tune ‘Tribute to Alan Skidmore’s Tribute to John Coltrane’, out of admiration for a jazzman who has strenuously laboured to sound exactly like someone else. But has Ballamy entirely escaped this fate himself? Later in the set he offers ‘Giant Steps’ with the explanation, “We’ve been tortured by this tune all our lives, so I don’t see why you shouldn’t be.” 

But if Coltrane casts a long shadow over proceedings (again), Ballamy has assimilated the gentler side of Coltrane, a Coltrane shorn of God-bothering neurosis. Ballamy’s flights are swooping glides rather freefalls into the abyss. He is an artist in total command of his means of expression. He knows what he wants to say and how to achieve it; he does so with minimum fuss and maximum sensitivity. Another name springs to mind: Ballamy might have the loveliest tone of any saxophonist since Stan Getz.  

Of course, qualities that are special to the artist come out in his playing: a certain teasing, twinkling wit underpins these pristine arpeggio flights. 

And this is a true meeting of equals. Gareth Williams’ piano is the perfect foil for Ballamy’s incredible loveliness. A heartstopping ‘I Fall in Love Too Easily’ recalls that Williams toured a Bill Evans Tribute. Bill Evans is to pianists what Trane is to saxophonists: the dominant influence that must be accommodated. He has the eloquence, the rich harmonic palette and the technique to sustain grace at unfeasibly fast tempi.  

‘All the Things You Are’ gets contrapuntal with Williams coming over all Bach as Ballamy stretches out, and then switches the roles, with Ballamy comping as Williams bounds ahead. ‘Floater’, a Ballamy original, is rather rapturous. The duo close the set with ‘Everybody’s Song But My Own’. It’s the song’s second appearance in a Festival with an ethos that encourages originality, vindicating Ballamy’s view that Kenny Wheeler’s composition is one of a handful of contemporary jazz standards. 

Journal Intime Plays Jimi Hendrix 
Festival Pavilion Teepee, Sunday 4 August

Journal Intime

On the face of it, it’s akin to re-arranging Led Zeppelin for kazoo, which actually has been done, and is a hoot. Journal Intime, however, transcend the charge of gimmickry by dint of formidable technique, boundless energy and a courageous sense of adventure. 

What one hears - the audacity of it is staggering - is the tumult of the Jimi Hendrix Experience (that’s the Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding parts too), compressed into intermeshed parts for trumpet, bass saxophone and trombone. Hendrix’s electronically enhanced state-of-the-art, ‘out there’ music is here transcribed for a pocket brass ensemble operating in an acoustic medium. The increased physicality compensate for the lack of technology.   

The parts are all meshed together, so, if trumpeter Silvain Bardiau and trombonist Matthias Mahler are naturals to play the Hendrix role, and bass saxophonist Frederic Gastard is well-placed to carry the rhythm, that doesn’t prevent the latter from occasionally swooping an octave higher to essay a line of melody, whilst pumping and parping at the same time. Silvain Bardiau, the one player who operates in the top register, comes down from the skies, as it were, with an intensity that communicates pure exhilaration. 

At one point, during ‘Loverman’, Gastard was simultaneously slap-tonguing, circular breathing and singing through the bass saxophone. He seems to possess energy far above ordinary human capacity, but then  Bardiau and Mahler each perform miracles of transformation. 

But do they sound anything like Jimi Hendrix? Lester Young, you may recall, always stressed the necessity of knowing the lyrics when playing a song. Journal Intime pass the Lester Young test on ‘All Along the Watchtower’. And ‘Angel’ is virtually played straight. It compares well with the Gil Evans version (Hendrix and Evans had plans to work together when the guitarist died). 

‘1983… (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)’ is simply incredible, loyal to the other-worldliness of Jimi’s conception, and faithfully mirroring the complexities of the change from domestic deshabille to merman apotheosis. There’s some fishy goings-on with mouthpieces. Unbelievable!

Saturday 3 August 2013

Manchester Jazz Festival, Friday 2 August - Laura Jurd Quartet, The Dors

Laura Jurd Quartet
Festival Pavilion Teepee 

Luara Jurd turned heads as the trumpeter with Phil Meadows’ band at Matt and Phred’s last month. A credit to her teachers, we gushed to music educationalist Kathy Dyson (whose table was just in front of ours). It was a case of reflected glory. Dyson was Meadows’ teacher actually, and, in fact, Jurd had trained at Trinity’s. Well, never mind, hats off to Trinity, and praise too to Jurd’s native genius. At  21, she’s one of the brightest talents to emerge on the British jazz scene. The bassist, Conor Chaplin, mind, looks about 14. 

Her beautiful trumpet is a point of pure lyricism in all the intense activity and shifting colours around her, and her writing evinces a matchless degree of personal creativity. The opening couple of numbers (called, according to my notes, ‘Solven Fjord’ and ‘Raw on the Inside’), have the unpredictability, grace and controlled energy of an inspired modern choreographer. The melodies are marvellous, and the way they crash and mesh is highly diverting.  

Jurd’s generation have inherited the best of both worlds: the sophistication of classical, matched with the freshness and spontaneity of jazz. A ballad, ‘Oh So Beautiful’ is a charmer and relatively straight: a showcase for Jurd’s near-perfect tone. 

Corrie Dick has just received the accolade Young Scottish Jazz Musician of the Year, and is a biting and bustling drummer who merits his own tune from Laura. ‘Corrie’s Theme’ is no showcase for flamboyant technique, but a beautifully-tempered, attractive melody which develops into a duo between percussion and Elliot Galvin’s prepared piano. 

I can’t help but feel how lucky they all are, by dint of talent and temperament, to have the opportunity to immerse themselves so totally in a world of music. They obviously feel the privilege and repay with startling and innovative music of their own. All the riches of jazz and classical are there as their personal heritage. Young Conor Chaplin has the lyricism and power that Jaco Pastorius died for, and seems very unassuming and modest about it. 


The Dors  
Royal Northern College of Music 

What an extraordinary band! Two thirds of trioVD and a French duo called Donkey Monkey combine to make The Dors. Is it ‘prog’ jazz or simply avant-garde jazz rock with an overlay of chanson? All this and more.  

Donkey Monkey

The first notes came from Chris Sharkey’s guitar: a scale of rising and descending thirds. Something like it served Steve Cropper well whenever Otis Redding sang a ballad. Except that the scale soon slips into dissonance and is accompanied by a choir of ethereal voices, before making way for some insistent drumming and staccato riffing. 

Electronics are used to enhance and subvert the physical sound. It’s often difficult to work out who is playing what, with the exception of drummer Yuko Oshima, who provides a human touch and is the catalyst for all the unpredictable changes that ensue. 

The Dors excel at impressionistic drift and it’s opposite, wayward clanking. The former was epitomised by the dreamlike ‘Say Nothing About the Suitcase Not Arriving’ (The Dors can mesmerise with a single repeated note), whilst the latter found expression’ in ‘Notes from the Underground’, in which a text by Dostoevski is broken down to abstract elements. 

Christophe de Bezenac

The trioVD contingent, it seems, are developing a maturity that admits to more emotions than just howling anarchy. Christophe de Bezenac’s tenor saxophone is tunefully jagged: his electronic interventions open the possibilities of sound as sculpture. And The Dors possess something trioVD never had: whimsy and Gallic piquancy, as when Eve Risser sings the one conventional song of the evening, ’Everyone Dies’ by Karen Mantler. 

Indeed, The Dors are quiet as often as they’re loud. It’s avant without the alienation, and the altered states they conjure are really quite nice.  
Chris Sharkey

Friday 2 August 2013

Manchester Jazz Festival, Thursday 1 August - Antonio Serrano, Taiwa

Antonio Serrano: Harmonious
St Ann’s Church 

Antonio Serrano

Expectations are high for harmonica virtuoso and Madrid native Antonio Serrano, given his impressive CV – collaborations with symphony orchestras, Paco de Lucia, Pedro Almodovar etc – and I settle into the gallery of a packed St Ann’s Church undeterred that the artist is outside my range of sight. Jazz promoter Bob Jones is a neighbour (somehow I’ve bumped into lots of jazz promoters at this year’s MJF). 

For the opener ‘I Got Rhythm’, Serrano utilises that gizmo that plays back a phrase, which allows instant riffing from a second harp on the chorus. It’s highly effective. Serrano follows this with ‘Summertime’. 

‘Summertime’ is the most perfect song in the world and every version of it elicits a groan. Perhaps if a good song isn’t nailed by a definitive version early in life it’s doomed to become a cliche. Miles’ treatment a possible exception. ‘Porgy and Bess’, now. Cracking songs, and a neat story. So why is it never staged? 

Technically, songs played consecutively with applause between don’t count as a medley. Parental problems. Dad was miffed that I hadn’t removed the ‘promo only’ sticker from his CD birthday present. But it was Mel Torme! I mean, it was a wrench to part with. His words were, “I’ve heard better Gershwin medleys.” Talk about ingratitude!

I could be at home playing ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ now. It’s more fun to be a performer than a spectator. I said the same to Al Parry the other day. With his one-track mind, his inevitable response: “Are you talking about sex, Mike?” No, I was thinking about free jazz, actually. With some things it’s the other way around. Darts and cooking. 

Sonny Terry had a showpiece where he reproduced a fox chase, from dogs yapping to hunt to kill, all on solo harmonica. He was a force of nature, that man. Seamus Ennis did the same thing on uilleann pipes. I wonder which came first? It must be far easier to impersonate the sound of a steam locomotive on a harmonica than a piano. Yet Meade Lux Lewis managed it OK with 'Honky Tonk Train Blues'. 

Why was Larry Adler a figure of fun whereas Toots Thielemans enjoyed critical credibility? The context. Adler emerged at the fag-end of vaudeville, whereas Thielemans was proper jazz. I could never work out if he (Adler) was any good. Dr Johnson. “Surprised to find it done at all.” I could never work out if Jacques Loussier was any good either. He hammered that Swing Bach thing into the ground. Whereas John Kirby swung the classics and he was wonderful. No-one knows him. ‘Who is Sylvia?’ A Desert Island Disc. 

This brought me to the surface just in time for a vastly enjoyable, multi-layered, multiple harmonica ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desire’. ‘Danny Boy’ was one too much, and I made my exit. 

Taiwa: A Tribute to Moses Molelekwa 
Festival Pavilion Teepee 

Al MacSween

A band formed to celebrate unsung South African composer Moses Molelekwa has the effect of alerting to unsung homegrown talents Al MacSween, a superb piano-player, and multi-instrumentalist Richard Ormerod, who did the arrangements tonight. 

The frontline was completed by Claude Deppa on trumpet and Tony Kofi on alto and soprano saxophone. There were mutterings about the non-appearance of Dennis Rollins, but Kofi made an acceptable replacement. 

Tony Kofi

The opening ‘Biko’s Dream’ announced the agenda: township jazz mediated by a fine intelligence. It emerged that Moses Molelekwa wasn’t the only South African musician to die too young. There was music too by Kula Kwendi (a new name to me). Indeed, “South African musician” and “die too young” are words that occur tragically frequently in the same sentence. 

Claude Deppa

This adds a sombre undertow to the celebration. This dance music is not just for dancing, and the exultation is not only exultation. Compare the contrasting styles of Deppa and Kofi. The trumpeter sings with almost childlike simplicity, and his clear ringing tones announce a mischievous spirit. Kofi is made of sterner stuff. Impassioned and urgent, his method is to barrage with a tirade of notes, all aimed at spiritual ascension. His solo during ‘Blues for Hugh’ contained a precis of ‘Love Supreme’. It was odd that John Coltrane should cast such a long shadow over an evening of South African music. MacSween’s piano too, is sometimes a ringer for McCoy Tyner’s.

Rhythm is the thing, of course, and drummer Joost Hendricks and conga-player Sam Bell interacted marvellously, creating a carpet of beats, while Kenny Higgins was as steady as a rock on bass. 

Thursday 1 August 2013

Manchester Jazz Festival, Wednesday 31 July - The Markov Chain, Georgia Mancio Quartet

The Markov Chain
Festival Pavilion Teepee 

“As you might have gathered,” said Adam Fairhall, after a turbulent opening salvo of piano, bass and drums, “we play free jazz, of which our drummer, Paul Hession, is a veteran. So our tunes don’t have titles, so there’s nothing to introduce.” And with that, he dived under the lid of the piano to scrape a few bare wires. 

Adam Fairhall

Boy, did they go for it. This was the orgiastic, earth-shaking, cacophonous real deal, with none of the mimsy “I don't feel ready for this yet” reticence that besets so much homegrown free jazz. But the Markovs were also capable of light and shade. The tumult subsided abruptly and gave way to tinkling in the upper register of the piano, answered by feathery brushwork from Hession, and bowing from Tim Fairhall  on string bass – and the rain falling on the Teepee provided background texture! 

There’s nothing like free jazz for being in the moment. When the next-door Town Hall clock chimed the hour, Adam responded with a spontaneous chime motif on piano, and then it was right back to clatter, crash, bang and wallop. 

Adam and Tim Fairhall 

No, the description is unfair. There is considerable artistry in the music, and the Markovs apply an extensive knowledge of jazz history. At one moment they played a passage of almost conventional driving bebop, but then, aware of the danger of pre-determination, they instantly speeded up to Warp Nine, I suspect that if they'd slowed down instead, it would sound just like Thelonious Monk. And yet it was never so frenetic that Hession wasn’t able to punctuate Fairhall’s phrases with rimshot accents, like an avant-garde Philly Joe Jones. 

Paul Hession 

The hour passed too quickly. I loved it. It was so rigorous it made The Imaginary Delta, Fairhall’s previous contribution to MJF, and the highlight of the 2011 Festival, it made The Imaginary Delta sound like the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain. And, contrary to expectation, the crowd liked it too. There were walk-outs, sure, but the final applause scored high on the clapometer and broad smiles passed easily from musician to spectator. There’s no gainsaying the generosity of the public when presented with free jazz (both senses).      

Georgia Mancio Quartet
Festival Pavilion Teepee 

Georgia Mancio

Perfection of a sort is offered by Georgia Mancio, one of the most talented and sophisticated of all contemporary British jazz singers. The first marvel of her performance: how could anyone undertake a seven hour road trip with emergency stops and come out so fragrant? 

Mancio sets the parameters with the opening number, ‘Everyone’s Song But My Own’, a haunting and advanced melody (by Kenny Wheeler) which she then proceeds to gloss with adventurous but smooth paraphrases. ‘That Old Black Magic’ finds her using her voice like an instrument, drawing on the rhythmic and melodic freedoms of the bop revolution. But Georgia has her cake and eats it too: the technical bravura is complemented by an immediate emotional connection, and she can turn a familiar song like ‘Willow weep For Me’ into something personal, alluring and fresh. 

And just when I was thinking, in my critical way – it’s very delectable but does it transcend cast-iron femme jazz conventions? – Mancio went and did it: she started whistling on ‘Willow Weep For Me’. It has to be a first.

Tim Lapthorn

The band is also impressive. It comes as no surprise that the MJF appearance is the last concert of a 24-date UK tour: the interaction between the players is extraordinary. Tim Lapthorn is virtuoso piano-player who is dominant to the point of overwhelming. But his sensitivity always wins out, as he anticipates and celebrates and motivates Mancio. Bassist Mark Hodgson and drummer Dave Ohm share a gift for telepathy and are playful with it, swapping fours in ‘Falling in Love With Love’ in alternate breakneck speed and dead-slow and stop.

‘Falling in Love With Love’ might be the highlight of the set, actually; a dazzling display of Mancio’s bright tone, superb phrasing, flawless diction and theatrical sparkle. And aren’t the words witty and wise? 

Mark Hodgson 
                                                                                                                                   Dave Ohm                                                                                                       
And still the Georgia Mancio Quartet have surprises in store. Since Nina Simone’s swinging version, it’s been customary to take ‘Just in Time’ at full-throttle. But here, the title is taken literally, and every line is played in a different time signature,. The shifts don’t jar, they actually gain in momentum. It’s a joyful, exuberant and fun demonstration of rhythmic virtuosity. Bravo Mark Hodgson! Bravo Dave Ohm! It does settle down eventually. I mean, you can take a joke too far.    

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