Wednesday 23 July 2014

Manchester Jazz Festival Pt 2, Tue 22 - Thu 24 July, inc The Imaginary Delta, The Bad Plus, Ex-Easter Island Head, Engine Room Favourites, Tin Men & The Telephone

Tuesday 22, Day 4 

Carles Benavent and Jordi Bonell 

Jaco Pastorius is the obvious role-model for any bass virtuoso who dares to elevate the instrument beyond its simple time-keeping role, although they might want wish to be spared his martyrdom. Carles Benavent is better placed than anyone to fill that Pastorius-shaped hole. Presumably Miles Davis, Paco de Lucía and Chick Corea thought so when they employed him. And he is less obviously tormented – as far as one can tell from his personable stage manner – and his cultural inheritance, which includes the richest of the Spanish flamenco tradition, transfers very nicely to the bass. 

Benavent’s bass playing is mellifluous, attractive, and fluid. Sometimes he played in unison with his guitarist partner, Jordi Bonell, and sometimes he played in counterpoint, so the extraordinary profusion of notes not only doubled but multiplied: the effect was like riding on a bubbling current of rhythm. 

He played a song dedicated to Jaco Pastorius, and another one dedicated to Paco de Lucía called ‘De perdidos al río’, which, Benavent usefully translated, means “If you get lost, go to the river”. On ‘Por dioss’ Bonell tried out another guitar sound, which was fuzzier and dirtier (I wonder how they would sound on two acoustic guitars? As beautiful as Segovia, I expect.) The two men were now trading solos with implausible precision, and making a game of telepathy in their duets. A blues in bulerías rhythm turned out to be ‘Footsteps’ by Wayne Shorter. 

It was all very intricate, very busy, very Spanish and vastly enjoyable. 

Jackie Kay and Adam Fairhall 

You know this lot (The Imaginary Delta, RNCM Theatre) could have been the next Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain if they’d listened to me. They had the potential to be quite as crowd-pulling, with music that drew on trad jazz (lovingly reinterpreting ancient jazz idioms with a freshness that came as an electric shock) and the hard-core avant-garde (albeit with all the portentousness and boring bits removed) . There was a theatrical element that could be developed, and the paranormal aspect was a unique selling-point – when the long-gone singer Victoria Spivey was summoned from blues Valhalla to join forces with the band: well, that was a priceless piece of coup de theatre to set alongside the elephants in Aida

Instead, The Imaginary Delta have reconvened for an evening of ‘jazz and poetry’. These dread words are usually an instant turn-off, but anything touched by Adam Fairhall, a homegrown autodidact and musical genius, is bound to be good. My faith is justified before even a note is played, when the wonderful vibes player Corey Mwamba makes an unannounced entrance alongside the other musicians. 

Hard to imagine it working as well with any other poet than Jackie Kay (except perhaps Nikki Giovanni). Kay has a modest bearing, a Scottish accent that exudes warmth, and an openness that cuts to the emotional heart. And she is a very good poet. Fairhall has provided settings for her series of poems about Bessie Smith. “Every note she sang, she bent her voice to her will,” ran one line. The same might be said of Kay, who overcomes her evident nervousness, and never misses a cue. 

The music is new, with Fairhall finding just the right sound textures for Kay’s images: say, Corey’s thumb-piano to suggest the desolation of the Deep South as Bessie’s Pullman trundles past. New, even when the stately ‘Arabian Fantasy’ triggers recognition with the avidity of the Imaginary Delta’s Greatest Hit. And here it is, the disembodied voice of Ivy Smith (Ivy, rather than Bessie), miraculously reconfigured by Paul J Rogers’ stick remote. New, I say, because the following solos by James Allsopp on bass clarinet, Chris Bridges on trombone (who has obviously absorbed both Roy Williams and Alan Tomlinson) and Steve Chadwick on cornet are fresh minted and of the moment. What is explicit in the poetry is implicit in Steve Chadwick’s horn, which combines elegance and immensity in a way that would be familiar to turn-of-the-twentieth-century New Orleans. 

A dead-march is inspired by Kay’s image of a graveyard where Bessie’s ghost haunts her lovers. The music then follows the archetypal pattern of a New Orleans funeral: Fairhall dispels the dirge with some steaming train time boogie woogie, and the other musicians leap aboard, heroic in their affirmation of life’s energies. They stand as a symbol of generations of musicians who have given their all and who, in the end, have shared the fate of Bessie Smith: “she had a laugh, and that was all she had.”   

Adam Fairhall, Chris Bridges, Steve Chadwick, Tim Fairhall, James Allsopp, Gaz Hughes, Corey Mwamba and Paul J Rogers  

Wednesday 23, Day 5 

Two pianists, or rather, a pianist and a piano trio divert me today. Alexander Hawkins (St Ann’s Church) draws equally on jazz and classical, as much Messiaen as Duke Ellington, but both are transformed by Hawkins’ bravura technique. He may dazzle with cascades of notes, or - such are the dynamic extremes - charm with a serene and airy lyricism. The music he extracts is rich, serious and elevated, and seems to belong in the beautiful and sacred space of St Ann’s Church. 

Alexander Hawkins

When he calms a bit, the listener catches echoes of the past – a glimpse of Gershwin, perhaps, or Mussorgsky offering Pictures at an Exhibition in some grand saloon. This, it must be said, is akin to the eye making out faces from the random patterns on an ancient mossy wall. Then something tangible emerges from the tonal thicket, and what’s more, it’s recognisably jazz: a fantastic re-imagining of ‘Take the A Train’. Hesitant at first, the train starts with spluttering, spasmodic runs before gathering speed at an alarming rate. It’s derailed a few times by fugitive rhythms, but that only adds to the excitement. And then in, short order, following the logic of free association and the community of jazz genii, Hawkins essays ‘Love in Outer Space’ by Sun Ra, replicating each part of the Arkestra, including the percussion, on one or more of the 88 keys of the piano, which, the way Hawkins plays, is a one-man Arkestra. 

His open-ended explorations last precisely the hour allotted in the schedule, and end as they began, with Hawkins bent under the lid of the piano, crooning “siii” and “saaa” into the piano’s interior, listening hard to the resonance. 

The Bad Plus

The Bad Plus enter the large stage of the dark auditorium of RNCM Theatre and pianist Ethan Iverson essays a simple theme of song-like simplicity; the bass enters; Iverson fills in the chords with atonal harmonies, reshaping the piece. David King, on drums increases the intensity with a splashing cymbal and emphatic backbeat. Now the tune is positively florid and King is giving it ten to the dozen, but the original tune can still be detected beneath the frenetic activity. The climax comes: pp suddenly follows ff (a favourite trick of The Bad Plus). The simple theme is restored in its dying fall. A snare beat signals finality; rapturous applause and whoops follow. This is ‘Pound For Pound’ by bassist Reid Anderson, and it characterises The Bad Plus methodology and The Bad Plus appeal. Anticipation sharpens about what will come next. 

‘The Empire Strikes Backward’ (cute titles are another feature) has a trickier time signature and more strenuous activity, and illustrates the trio’s ability to deliver hummable melodies in 7/8 time. ‘Gold Prisms Incorporated’ utilises repetitive chords and boasts a pounding back beat, but the mock rock is subverted by a passage of free time and ascending chordal arpeggios are set to a dark, ominous drone. The music fractures completely, before the bombastic riff makes a conquering return, only to be superseded in another quick change by a new far-out rhythm. A bass solo climaxes this piece and more ravenous applause follows. 

And so it goes on. There were more players in The Imaginary Delta at last night’s concert in the theatre, but somehow the trio seem larger, and their presence expands to fill the space in inverse ratio to actual physical size. I ponder this during Iverson’s solo on ‘You Are’, a practical application of Bach-like mathematics to the chamber jazz format. Heads are now involuntarily nodding.      

Me, I think it was great as prog-rock but deficient as jazz, and, personally, I regard jazz as the higher art-form. The promised performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring didn’t materialise. I have mixed feelings about this. 

Thursday 24, Day 6 

Ex-Easter Island Head

Ex-Easter Island Head (St Ann’s Church) seemed to have stumbled upon a new method of making music, which is quite an achievement at this stage of the game. Benjamin D. Duvall, Jonathan Herring and Ben Fair lay electric guitars on a flat surface and beat them with mallets. There are a few refinements, which would be mysterious even if my view wasn’t obstructed in the 12th pew down: the direction the guitars face seems to be important, and the spot on the guitar body where the strike lands affects the sound. With an overlay of (conventional) percussion and augmented by discreet electronics, EEIH sound like a cross between a gamelan orchestra and Velvet Underground. 

Then, not content with pioneering one innovative instrumental technique, EEIH have come up with another. Again, I’m not sure how they did this, but gently tapping the strings with a trembling hand and waving the other hand over the guitar, as if it were a theramin, produce ethereal, oscillating chords that quiver in the air. Then it’s back to the mallets and slapping. But this was not horrible noise. On the contrary, it was beguiling and hypnotic. If it was shocking, it was shocking because it was so new, but the music was more mellifluous than not. When something resembling an orthodox thrash emerged towards the end, the effect was transcendent. I have seen the future of rock ’n’ roll… 

Martin Archer and Mick Beck with Seth Bennett 

Martin Archer is the chief engineer of Engine Room Favourites (Festival Pavilion). He cavorts about the place with a mischievous grin and orchestrates the mayhem by waving his arms. Everywhere there is a welter of taps, rustles, bangs, scrapes and whirrs (I was going to add bonks, forgetting my childhood lexicon of rude words) from the four-strong percussion team (including veteran drummer/composer Peter Fairclough). Sometimes, as in the opening piece, they pull off a user-friendly Coltrane: it’s Ascension without the tears, with Corey Mwamba bopping brightly on the bottles as Archer offers long legato phrases on the soprano saxophone, and Graham Clark (at the tip of the hat from Archer) responds with an extraordinarily lovely yet astringent fiddle solo. 

What’s great about Engine Room Favourites is the spontaneity and freshness. The music never stops evolving, but it invariably grows into something quite unexpected. There are champion soloists like Mick Beck on tenor sax, but the usual head-solo-solo-head thing is not an option: instead, individuals work in odd combinations – vibes and piano; vibes, bass and tenor; or soprano alone – the better to counter the barrage of percussion that shadows their every move. Or they may attempt lone acts of rhythmic derring-do, say speeding up or retarding the beat. This encounters a warm response from Seth Bennett, an unstoppable force of nature on bass. 

And then, in the tumult of the climactic number (did they call it ’Satin Lantern’?), there’s another surprise: the musicians, who have all been pushing and pulling in their various ways towards the shared goal of ecstasy, suddenly all gel and play a proper written theme which coalesces into surging groove-music! 

It was extraordinary, and all the more valuable for providing a glimpse into a vibrant and hidden music scene, one totally off the London radar. Engine Room Favourites thrive in Sheffield and environs, and amount to nothing less than a revolutionary revelation!      

Of course, MJF has always been susceptible to high concepts, so when Tin Men and the Telephone (RNCM Theatre), a piano trio from Amsterdam, propose a technologically interactive, ideas-based performance, it meets with a ready response from the Festival promoters. 

Ideas like what? Oh, accompanying a Sharápova tennis match at Wimbledon, projected onto a screen backkdrop: a groovy vamp for when play is interrupted, and ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’ for sustained volleys. Or shaping melodies for a cut-up commentary from the recent World Cup (the words “de bal” featured heavily). Or, having successfully matched melody with human speech, attempting the same trick with a herd of cows (the bow of bassist Lucas Dols comes in handy here). In a nice touch, the on-screen cows turn their heads en-masse in the direction of the music. 

Best of all, audience members are invited to turn on their mobile phones and influence the performance according to some on-screen directions (“faster”, “bass solo”, “please stop now” etc.) The suspicion grew that the ideas were more interesting than the music, which was a bit like throwaway Bad Plus, but it was certainly entertaining.

Tin Men and the Telephone  

Diego Amador, described as a flamenco piano player (which would be something to see), is not having a good night. His original error, from which he never really recovers, is to share a double-bill with Tin Men and the Telephone. 

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