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!

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