Omar Puente – fiddler on the hoof

Dazzling Cuban expat violinist Omar Puente will be performing as part of the Jazzwise 20th Anniversary Special Festival at Ronnie Scott's on 17 March. In a recent interview with Jazzwise, Puente spoke with Kevin Le Gendre about spanning the distance between populism and abstraction while maintaining his identity amid a collision of global cultures

In front of the billboards of branded images bursting into 3D life for the 5G generation in Piccadilly Circus, central London, two buskers, a double bassist and violinist mark out their pitch on a crowded pavement, immobile in the endless stream of smartphones. Omar Puente is momentarily distracted by the smaller of the two instruments as we log out of the hubbub in search of a chillout zone in this hyped and hyper part of town. In the relative sanctuary of nearby Golden Square the genial Cuban expat makes an interesting point about why he does not own an axe similar to the one he’s just hawk-eyed.

“To buy an acoustic violin may cost £20,000 to £50,000… to have a really good one,” he says. “With an electric one I can reduce the costs, I can afford one and I can also compete with the drums, with the trumpet, with the whole band, and it will cost me £2,000-3,000.

“It’s a very different experience playing and hearing the notes on an electric violin,” he continues. “On an acoustic there is the air between the instrument and the microphone. You are the one that creates the quality of the sound. On the electric it is really the soundman who creates the quality of the sound, so you have to know exactly what you want, to then create your own thing with the right engineer.”

Puente is very much true to his word on his new album Best Foot Forward, a thrilling work that is a significant step along the road of his creative development following his auspicious 2009 debut From There To Here. Although the common denominator between both albums is a robust eclecticism this new offering has, for the most part, a heavier, harder character in which a sharply-drilled rhythm section, topped by Al MacSween’s strident keyboards, provides a high energy backdrop to Puente’s violin, which has been so well mixed by Sam Hobbs that it sounds as if he is as close as the street players we just passed.

Although the leader makes liberal use of the kind of pedals, from the whammy to the crybaby, that one would expect to find in a guitarist’s arsenal the quality of his improvisations and the articulation of his phrases serve as a reminder of the enviably high-standard of training available to the vast majority of Cuban musicians. Born in Santiago in 1961 to a mother who was a nurse and a father who was both a doctor and violinist, Puente won a scholarship to study classical music at the renowned Escuela Nacional De Arte in Havana at the age of 12. He went on to join the prestigious National Symphony Orchestra Of Cuba, where he further consolidated his skills as a section player, and Puente eventually found himself drawn to jazz through Irakere, the revered Cuban band led by pianist Chucho Valdes that is defined by its patchwork of acoustic son, bebop, European classical music, electric funk and rock. Furthermore, Puente attended master classes in Havana conducted by trumpet legend Dizzy Gillespie, but it was his attendance at a concert by other innovators that proved a turning point in his life.

“In 1979 Weather Report came to Havana,” he tells me, a broad smile lighting up his face as he sips coffee outside the chic Nordic Bakery. “By that time they were touring the world, and this was really another level. Wow! That was something… it had a big effect on us.”

Without pausing for breath the 55-year-old adds that during his formative years the listening policy was access-all-areas, from Nat ‘King’ Cole, an icon in Cuba, to salsa to jazz to pop, but there was something special in the way the Zawinul-Shorter-Pastorius-Erskine vehicle managed to negotiate the highways and byways of numerous folk traditions, be they African, Latin or European, all the while allowing the strength of character of each bandmember to come to the fore.

The combination of populism and abstraction was inspired and inspiring for Puente first and foremost because it brought home to him the necessity of retaining one’s essential identity amid the embrace of music from any culture and era. Whether his own songs have echoes of Senegalese mbalaax, Detroit soul or London techno, the sounds to which he has been exposed throughout his life as a global citizen, Puente is still intent on being a violinist from Santiago De Cuba.

“I can’t pretend to be a Brazilian or African musician. I’m a Cuban musician who has had the opportunity to play, see and learn and experience many things and all kinds of music,” he states emphatically.

“I don’t have to play salsa or guanganco, but there has to be something there that is me as a Cuban. It doesn’t have to be the sound of the clavé [percussion] because that is already inside the music in the overall rhythm. I just try to be as true to myself as I can in my playing and writing, to be honest to my roots. Every time you write you have the influence of other things, different instruments, bands, styles. But there’s still you, if you’re being honest.

“I think there are always elements of religion and belief in the music, not only through instruments like bata drums. One way or another, we as Cubans, well, everybody knows who is Eleggua, Shango and Yemenja… these orishas [deities]. Doesn’t matter if you’re white or black, it’s universally in the culture, you don’t have to be really religious, it’s your culture. The Afro-Cuban religion has made the most impact, everybody knows something about Santeria; they might not know all the details, but they know the basics. It is handed down from generation to generation, like the oral tradition. Unfortunately, our indigenous population was wiped out by the Spanish, so maybe we have just a few instruments or dances from them. But what the Africans brought to Cuba – culture, religion and instruments… that’s one of our foundations. Whether I’m doing Motown or funk or reggae I still have an element of Cuban music because it’s really strong. My first album From There To Here was the journey to Britain. Now it’s 20 years of being in the UK, with the modern sounds you get on the street.”

That move happened in 1995 after Puente had been living the nomadic life of an international touring musician. He had worked with the likes of Orqesta Enrique Jorrin and Jose Maria Vitier and ended up playing an extended residency in Singapore. It was there that he met and fell in love with the woman with whom he returned to England and eventually married, the late journalist Debbie Purdy. They settled in Bradford, Yorkshire but Puente soon came to the attention of saxophonist Courtney Pine in London who asked him to join his regular working group, and then the Jazz Warriors Afropeans big band. Through his association with Pine and other black British musicians he learned more about the folk and popular music of the West Indies. But he also notes that it was an unfortunate incident of racial stereotyping in the Far East that initially brought him into contact with Jamaican music.

“There I am in Singapore doing this residency, and the owner of the venue says to me ‘all the latin music and latin jazz is very nice but I need you to change’,” Puente explains. “What do you want me to play?’ He says, ‘I want you to play reggae.’ I say, ‘But I’m Cuban not Jamaican.’ “Yes, but you’re black, so you play reggae, right?” Puente says with a wry smile on his face. “I rang Debbie and I said to her if I don’t play reggae they’re not gonna pay me, and she sent me Legend, the Bob Marley compilation. So I was introduced to Bob Marley, me a black Cuban guy, by a white British woman… in Singapore!”

A sufferer of multiple sclerosis, Purdy would go on to be a valiant champion of the right for assisted suicide, and a high-profile campaign saw her take her case to the High Court. She challenged existing legislation to ensure that Puente would not be prosecuted if he travelled abroad with her should she chose to end her own life.

“This album is a new chapter in my life. I dedicated it to Debbie, she really named the album, ‘best foot forward’, meaning you have to keep going, no matter what happens. She was like my right hand. I am who I am because of Debbie Purdy. I can play the violin but the person who believed in me and pushed me was Debbie, so it’s really about her.”

Unsurprisingly, her passing in December 2014 had a devastating effect on Puente, who had very little appetite for playing music. “I went through a period where I didn’t wanna talk to anybody,” he recalls. “People wanted to help but I was just on my own, I didn’t practice, I didn’t play. But after a year I came back. Thank god I had the violin, thank god I had the music, thank god for that. Without that I really don’t know. She was a strong woman to have to go through pain all the time… it was tough. She was a young woman, but I’ve been using her spirit, and every single note I play is for Debbie.”

This interview originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing to Jazzwise, visit:

Soweto Kinch interview: "I see this real disconnect between the establishment bubble and what’s happening in society"

Saxophonist Soweto Kinch will appear as part of the Jazzwise 20th Anniversary Special Fesitval at Ronnie Scott's on 15 March. In a recent Jazzwise interview, Kevin Le Gendre got to the root of Kinch’s progress since the release of his critically-acclaimed 2003 debut Conversations With The Unseen...

Leon, the cafe franchise whose red-and-gold lettering appears aggressively bright in London’s sharply competitive fast food market, is a recent addition to the new mezzanine area at Euston train station. Yet it already boasts a roaring trade. The small shop unit and terrace are full of laptopped passengers, their computer screens flipped up like digital shields against any careless stares from fellow pilgrims about to exit the capital. Perhaps they need a moment of privacy to hide the shock at what they have actually paid for – the right to sit, eat and email.

Sporting a beige woollen cap and flame-red jumper bearing the logo ‘Smooth Jazz Sucks’, Soweto Kinch is not about to mince his words when asked to chew on his consumer experience. “It’s £1.61,” he says holding a small drink in front of me. “For a bottle of pop! I noticed on the menu that they had a ‘fish-finger wrap’ for… a fiver!!! I mean what are the profit margins there? Huge, presumably. But I think it speaks to a wider thing about a corporate elite, or people ‘gaming’ the consumer, and seeing how far they can push before these people realise they are being ripped off. That’s all over the place; it’s in our politics, our high streets… what’s the line? It’s ‘let me just push slightly beyond that.’”

The British saxophonist and MC, some 16 years into a career that is impressive in its negotiation of a range of artforms, from music to theatre and media (as presenter of Radio 3’s Jazz Now), is customarily outspoken, and the point about turnover by means fair and not so fair, is well made. One could say that it was ever thus. But in an age of social status granted to the ascending figures of a smart phone – does anybody want 5G or even 6G since the advent of 7G? – and property prices rising like the ratings of a hit TV show, Kinch is consciously engaging head and heart with all the digits that dot our daily lives.

“This has emotional resonance with us,” says the 38-year-old as we settle at a table, his schedule taken with meetings before he boards the train to return to his hometown of Birmingham later in the day. “A fiver! That triggers a memory of what you could get with a fiver when you were 12 versus what you can get now… so yeah, numbers definitely have an emotional and creative quality that isn’t often publicised in our education system and in society more widely.”

Nonagram, Kinch’s new album, focuses explicitly on the application of numerical systems to the world of sound, from the use of uncommon metres to frequencies and pitches that are based on equations inspired by geometric shapes. Featuring a transatlantic band – stellar American drummer Gregory Hutchinson, a key sideman for Joshua Redman among others, and two young Brits, pianist Ruben James and bassist Nick Jurd – the album is Kinch’s fifth to date, and marks an interesting progression since his 2003 debut Conversations With The Unseen. While that CD was the opening salvo of the saxophonist who could rap, or the rapper who could play saxophone, depending on the listener’s tribal allegiance, it also signalled the arrival of a strong personality. Like several of his British peers, London-born and Birmingham-based Kinch benefitted from the springboard of Tomorrow’s Warriors educational programmes, and went on to establish himself as a recording artist who was as interested in concepts as compositions, as one might expect from an Oxford graduate and largely self-taught player.

The life-in-a-day oratorio of 2006’s B:19 Tales From The Tower Block was noteworthy in this respect, and Kinch, who would make the tenor rather than alto his instrument of choice by the time he cut 2011’s The New Emancipation, has always been vocal on socio-political and personal issues. Nonagram also has rhymes, but the specific numerical basis of the work is prominent, the research for which drew Kinch deep into the music of some of the key pathfinders of the 1980s – Steve Coleman and Greg Osby – and also that of the former’s erstwhile sidemen, Andy Milne and Robert Mitchell. Kinch took an interest in the creative possibilities of music that was not based on 4/4, asking questions on ‘how?’ as well as ‘why?’ musicians count time as they do.

“You find things sometimes in completely disconnected cultures,” says Kinch scratching his beard. “For example 6/8 is tremendously important to African culture, Indian culture, West Indian culture, but yeah, you hear 6/8 all over the place. So there are some metres, like 4/4, that do appear regularly. Less common are nine and five, but they are still there. You’ll find them in Armenia, and there aren’t any watertight answers as to why that is. I just find it very interesting they exist.”

As Kinch started to investigate time signatures, from five to seven to nine, that gave his compositions what he felt was a new sensory stimulus, he got to grips with several puzzles on the relationship between a given shape and corresponding sounds. In real terms that meant composing according to strict maths, such as on ‘Triangle’, where the entire harmony of the piece is based on two pitches that match calculations on the internal and external angles of a pyramid. “Playing those notes together you get what the shape sounds like,” says Kinch breezily.

Translating the pictorial into the aural is no new undertaking in jazz, and the use of length, height and breadth in the visual arts and the addition and subtraction of elements in a tableau is a key part of the praxis of the painters and sculptors who have inspired many musicians. While Kinch feels part of that tradition, he also sees Nonagram in the wider context of the scriptures that underpinned his 2013 release The Legend Of Mike Smith, which referenced one of the Bible’s eventful cautionary tales. That story was also framed by a specific number.

“Yeah, the seven deadly sins are maybe now balanced by the nine fruits of the spirit (the nine in a nonagram),” says Kinch, leaning forward and pausing for thought only briefly. He picks up his flow soon enough.

“The number nine is sacred in all sorts of cultures. There’s all the idiograms that the ancient Egyptians produced, their harmony of the spheres, their hierarchies that often involve nine, and there is something about whether nine was discovered or invented, you know like the Alpha Numeric system; are we just discovering principles that are there in the first place? Nine is a fascinating number, really, I mean it’s based largely on the digital root system, with nine being the apex of that.

“Nine as a number itself is both invisible and ubiquitous, which is a powerful property. You can add anything to the number nine using the digital root system… you always get the number that you started with. So add six to nine you get 15 – one and five makes six, so it’s almost this number that’s in everything, and yet simultaneously invisible.

“I also wondered if there was any empirical connection between the way that savants associate the number seven with the colour yellow, or being in a bad mood. Nine is an edgy character, some see it like that, but…. numbers generally, it’s so individual, so personal, not everyone sees and hears a four the same way. That tells a story.

“I think that we all have our own ideas about odd and even, strange and normal, or the deep and the banal. The way I wanted that to happen on this album was an open door policy. You don’t have to know, you just feel moved and be, ‘oh… that feels ‘off’ slightly?’ Why is that off? Or why is that [seemingly] on? Does that feel balanced?”

Identifying the existence of bars of five, seven or nine beats on Nonagram may not be an entirely fruitless exercise, especially for those interested in jazz history where the use of 3/4 and 5/4 by artists such as Max Roach and Dave Brubeck, respectively, was deemed worthy of part of the marketing of their music back in the 1950s. But these metres are no longer talking points of any great import in a post-M-Base world.

For Kinch varied takes on time and tempo should affect, not distract.

Classical music uses terms such as adagio, moderato and presto, and pop music slow, medium and fast, but the common language between the two is numerical, something that can bind Italian and non-Italian speakers alike. Most understand 66, 108 or 168 beats per minute.

Perhaps it is so obvious that we rarely articulate it, but numbers are all over and within the human body, from limbs, to teeth to digits, to the rates at which substances circulate. Blood pressure and heart rate are measured in figures. We have a pulse. So does musical composition.

Exactly how the human mind and body processes a series of numbers, whether the patterns are considered inside or outside of convention, is a debate that has exercised able thinkers and doers for many years. If the conception and execution of odd time signatures is interesting then so is our spontaneous perception of and essential reaction to them. To tell people that they can dance in 11/4 might arouse a certain incredulity, but that won’t stop them doing so if moved by the music. As Dhaffer Youssef pointed out in Jazzwise earlier this year, the Viennese waltz might have actually been better in that metre.

As is the case with many in the world of jazz, Kinch reads as well as listens a great deal. There was a substantial amount of historical research that prefigured the composing process of Nonagram, and while the saxophonist is happy to broach the subject of music and mathematics he is keen to point out that the inquiry is part of the much bigger question of how an individual experiences sound both consciously and subconsciously. Of considerable help to Kinch in this regard was This Is Your Brain On Music, a critically acclaimed tome by Dr. Daniel J. Levitin, a fairly rare beast insofar as he is a successful rock musician and producer turned advanced neuroscientist and researcher.

“One of the big things that I got from that book is that music isn’t just processed in the outer cortex where language is,” says Kinch, his face brightening with a new flash of intensity. “In the primitive brain there is an area that processes sound, so syncopation is perhaps entertaining to us as human beings in the same way that a snake has to negotiate different terrain, well, we negotiate a sonic terrain, we’re imagining, ‘oh, there’s a rock that’s just thrown off this regular 4/4 beat that we were walking in up to that point’. There are things that transcend culture and the things that we’re told make our society what it is, like laughter, it’s understood all around the world, irrespective of any language.”

Universal as the debate on the use of time and numbers in music is, Kinch nonetheless points out that there is a political ramification in Nonagram that may not be entirely obvious to the listener. At a time when the question of immigration is high on the electoral agenda, to the extent that it was paramount in the EU referendum, there is much to be said not just about the numbers that designate a wage, but also the more existential question of the top 10 of social legitimacy.

“I can’t help drawing analogies with numbers and the way our society is set up,” says Kinch, his voice rising slowly, but markedly. He edges closer without so much as missing a beat. “I think about the number nine and what that metaphor of it being ubiquitous and invisible says about the history of poor people, the history of Africans all around the world. We’ve often been the engine drivers of economies, but very seldom credited as such. We’re ubiquitous; we’re in everything, moving economies and culture, so what does it mean to be British or French [and black], so where’s the power, where’s the visibility?

“It’s such a wide-ranging subject, but I think it’s not just that nines and sevens sound normal, that actually it does get people thinking with a wider consciousness. I’m pretty sure that was Steve Coleman’s intention and when you look at the very design of a pyramid it’s about connecting the microcosm and the macrocosm. What is the thing that gets our consciousness so we see the world for what it really is? Sound can do that without having to engage the cerebral part of us.”

Words still count though. If Kinch can compose a saxophone-led piece in 5/4 as a reference to the fish-finger wrap being sold just a few feet from where we are sitting then he might also write a lyric on the same subject. Even though Nonagram is largely instrumental it has vocals, as befits Kinch’s dual identity as a MC and horn player. The Legend Of Mike Smith might have had a lot more rapped verses than this latest recording, but the link between the two is contemporary politics.

“It’s a lot less lyrical,” says Kinch. “But I don’t think I can be less political, especially this year. Most of the pieces had their genesis from April to June; Game Of Thrones finished and the new Game Of Thrones became… Brexit, the real world, the future… the lack of future!

“I’m inspired, moved and incensed by how much nonsense, how much misinformation there is still. I’m reading a great book called Parliament Limited, which basically explains why there is this consensus on both sides of the house that Jeremy Corbyn is evil somehow, and the system is fine. Increasingly I see this real disconnect between the establishment bubble and what’s happening in society. They keep saying somebody’s unelectable, or we’ll never leave Europe, or Donald Trump is just a TV celebrity, and actually there’s this whole other planet that is disaffected with the solutions that are given to us.” 

This interview originally appeared in the December 2017 / January 2017 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing to Jazzwise, visit:

John McLaughlin – lighting the way

On 14 and 15 March, John McLaughlin and 4th Dimension will be playing at Ronnie Scott's as part of the Jazzwise 20th Anniversary Special Festival. In this recent interview with JazzwiseMcLaughlin speaks to Stuart Nicholson about the origins of the band, his music and how Miles Davis taught him the greatest lesson of all is to be yourself

The one eternal truth about jazz is that its most vivid life studies are realised in the act of live performance since they provide audiences with their most profound memories of the music. In the early 1970s, the one band in jazz that was giving audiences something to think about was John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. For two years they lit up the night sky. With the volume at 11 and everything played at 500mph their concerts became the stuff of legend. Then suddenly, after just three albums, they were gone. Though there was another Mahavishnu Orchestra in the 1970s, and another in the 1980s, you can only make a first impression once. Or so we’re told. Over the last couple of years, fans of electric jazz have been keeping a close eye on McLaughlin’s current band, the 4th Dimension with good reason. Since the band’s debut with Industrial Zen in 2006, McLaughlin has been weighing-in with some of his fiercest playing in years and, equally, the band itself has been getting better and better with each succeeding record. Now, with their latest release Black Light, the word is out. Fans and critics alike have been openly hailing 4th Dimension as the “Mahavishnu Orchestra of the 21st century”.

It’s a big call. Even pianist Chick Corea said the Mahavishnu Orchestra changed the direction of his band, Return to Forever, while Joe Zawinul of Weather Report said: “It was a helluva band, in John McLaughlin you had a master guitarist, no-one had ever played like that, you were into another music”. So how does McLaughlin himself feel about 4th Dimension being compared to his earlier, groundbreaking band? He smiles, “Well, I don’t know who said that, but if that’s what they’re saying, well, they’re part of my roots, aren’t they? In my experience, as I grow older, sometimes there’s two steps backwards for one step forward, I also think the musicians have a role in this, the way they play. With 4th Dimension now it’s wonderful really, they’ve got this marvellous passion which translates into energy – I see how deep they’re into what they’re doing and it’s very inspiring to me, because it’s right up my street. I know Mahavishnu was known as the loudest, fastest band in the world – not really what you might call a compliment! – but nevertheless it’s very much part of my history and as far as this particular band is concerned I would definitely see relations and analogies between the two bands, certainly.”

Those connections were not being made when Industrial Zen was first released nine years ago, but the evolution of the band into what it is today has been as steady as it has been inexorable, guided and inspired by McLaughlin’s creative energy. He may be 73, but his passion for playing seems to have grown over the years rather than receded. “Well, that may be true,” he laughs, “I know I get so much out of playing, from composing to performing. And the way the band has grown, that’s inspiring. I hear how the musicians are becoming themselves and how we relate to each other, because in the end we’re playing arrangements, we’re playing songs and whether it’s solo or as a collective what we’re really doing is relating to each other, and relating to the music and relating to ourselves, and, in a global sense – I know it sounds a bit hippie – relating to the universe itself. The fact that they feel so deeply about what they do is really wonderful – I want them to be able to say who they are and what they feel and how strongly they feel about it, and so in every record with a groove there evolves a certain complicity, or at least we should develop a complicity, and the relationship becomes unspoken because over time you get to know each other very well, and you get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. But nevertheless the whole point about music, as in life, for me, and I feel they agree with me, is we want to try and get to the unknown place rather than play what we know. Of course, the road to the unknown is through the known, so it’s already a contradiction in terms, but nevertheless, we try and get to that place.”

Black Light comprises eight tracks that are full of musical surprises, reflecting the sheer diversity of musical genres and influences McLaughlin has explored; from blues with Graham Bond in the 1960s to rock with Santana and Jeff Beck in the 1970s, jazz with Lifetime and Miles Davis, Indian music with Shakti, and Spanish music with Paco de Lucia. It has, as McLaughlin says, produced an album that is, “neither jazz nor rock, nor Indian nor blues, and yet all of these”. Opening with an attention getting ‘The Jiis’, part statement of intent and part prelude to what is about to come, it is clear the band have now developed a sharply defined musical personality. “‘The Jiis’ refers to the mandolin player in Shakti who we lost last year, U. Shrinivas, at the age of 45, of liver failure, devastating after 14 years of working together, and the other Jii – just to clear that up, in Shakti we basically refer to one another as Jiis. So U. Shrinivas and V. Selvaganesh are the Jiis, but when I think about it, this track is really about Shrinivas, who died, but I didn’t want to eliminate Selvaganesh. Even though this is a personal homage, at the same time I don’t want to be sad about it because he was such a joyful soul.”

The penultimate track on the album, ‘Gaza City’, is revealing of the charitable and educational work McLaughlin undertakes in the Middle East and in the continent of India, which he somehow manages to fit into a relentless touring and composing schedule – for example, in October/November he embarks on an exhausting Asian tour. “My wife and I, we’ve been actively involved with a particular NGO in Ramallah in Palestine for the last few years and I’ve done a couple of concerts there. You can’t do any benefit concerts, or whatever, because nobody has any money, so basically the most expensive seat is $5. So, ‘Gaza City’ – I had been invited to go there after the Ramallah concert last year, it was before the war, but it was so complicated for us to go from Ramallah to Gaza, and do the concert and get out, they gave us a rough estimate of about a week, which was physically impossible for us. The other thing is, of course, we don’t see through the media what really happens in Palestine. But the bombing of Gaza City was really behind this piece, it so upsets me to this day, it was just terrible. So I have a very direct relationship with that country and the people of that country, and to see that happening… OK, I can’t do anything, I can’t change the world, but I can just write music and try and express what I feel.”

McLaughlin fans will be particularly interested in ‘El Hombre que Sabiac’, since it is the first time in a long while he performs on acoustic guitar in what is a perfect marriage of electric and acoustic sounds which for many will be the album’s highlight. “The acoustic [guitar] piece is called ‘El Hombre que Sabiac’ which means ‘The man who knew’, which was for Paco [de Lucia], of course, [who died in February 2014]. This tune was one of a series of tunes that Paco and I planned to record last year, just two guitars, and he was particularly attached to this piece, so I really wanted to do it. I think the band did a fantastic job on it. Of course, I had to play acoustic guitar, there was no way I could play it on electric this particular tune. On another note, you’ll see there’s a tune ‘Panditji’, which is also a thank you to my old guru Ravi Shankar, with whom I studied in the mid-1970s. It was marvellous just to know him, and be with him, and he was extremely helpful to me in terms of Indian musical theory, just marvellous. So this album is full of personal affections!” This could well explain why McLaughlin’s playing on the album is so heartfelt and intense, which is the source of the album’s authenticity.

With 4th Dimension now established on the world’s touring circuits, with sell-out concerts wherever they play, it’s often overlooked that the band’s beginnings owed much to a bit of serendipity and the right people being in the right place at the right time. “Well, the story begins with Gary Husband, who plays keyboards, drums and percussion in my band, we go back many years,” reflects McLaughlin. “I would say I met him in the 1990s and we became friends at that point, and I made a point of following his career. He was playing drums with [guitarist] Allan Holdsworth at that point, I only knew him as a drummer, and I was touring with the Free Spirits in 1995-6 [a power trio McLaughlin led with Joey DeFrancesco on Hammond B-3 organ and Dennis Chambers on drums] when Dennis Chambers, the drummer who was with us at the time, who knew Gary – they had been in touch for a while – and Gary came down to the soundcheck, and Dennis said why don’t you jam with Gary? And it was wonderful, what a great drummer. I have known Allan, Allan Holdsworth, since 1971, something like that, and so whenever I had the opportunity I’d go and see him, so I already knew what a great drummer Gary was, but playing with him was great.

“Then, out of the blue, I get a CD of my music with Gary playing piano! I mean, what a dark horse! He was playing my music and he did Allan’s music too. And this really piqued my interest, very much so, which leads to the beginning of 4th Dimension, which must have been at least 10 or 11 years ago. Anyway, I got an invitation from La Réunion, a French island near Madagascar, to come over and do several concerts of anything that I wanted. And I thought what a great opportunity and, at the time, Gary had formed a little trio with Mark and Michael Mondesir. Mark was the first drummer in 4th Dimension and Michael the first bass player, but he was very busy, in any event I saw Gary and his little trio and I thought I’ll just take the whole lot! Take the package! I said ‘Are you interested in coming over to La Réunion to do some concerts together?’ And they said yes, and that really was the start of 4th Dimension, and Gary was there from the very beginning.

“Gary is one of the most modest people I have ever met, and with the most talent too. He is the most unassuming, self-effacing musician I’ve ever met – without doubt. He so impresses me with his musicality, his imagination, he’s wild, but this is what I want to hear, he just lets go, he doesn’t want to stay conventional, he just wants to be himself. That’s all I ever wanted, this is a great lesson I learned from Miles Davis. Miles, he didn’t want us to play what we thought he’d like to hear, he wanted us to be who we really are, and express that musically, and I got that great lesson from Miles and I just continue it to this day. I wanted the group to continue but Michael came out of it, and that was the point where shortly after I did the album Industrial Zen. You’ll hear Gary and Mark on several of those pieces, and Gary playing drums and keyboards, because that’s how much I dig his playing. Anyway, over the years we had Hadrien Feraud, the young French bass player, who is phenomenal, I think he moved to LA many years ago, and then Étienne [M’Bappé] came into the band. I had known Étienne from Zawinul’s days, about 11, 12 years ago, and it must be seven or eight years now he’s been with me, and Ranjit [Barot] on drums, who I knew because of my Indian adventures, playing at the festivals in Mumbai, and we got to play 10 years ago. Then, when I was over there again about eight or nine years ago, I wanted to make this record Floating Point, and since I’d played with Ranjit a couple of times I got him on the recording, and that was it. If you listen to that recording, how amazing he plays and then Mark left, so Ranjit came in. But Gary, he’s been there from the beginning and I’m his biggest fan, what more can I say? I think the whole point of making a record is that they all – the whole band – get integrated into the music and this has always been my goal and I think it was really important for me to let them shine on Black Light.”

This interview originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing to Jazzwise, visit:

Top 20 Jazz Albums of 2016

Jazzwise 2016

Has Stuart Nicholson got a crystal ball? Back in the April issue in the interview with Tim Garland talking about his new album One, he nailed it with the closing sentence: “It’s a truly memorable album that’s head and shoulders above any other British jazz recording of the last couple of decades.” As word spread, ears perked up and, come this year’s annual Jazzwise Album of the Year Critics Poll, Nicholson clearly wasn’t the only believer. Garland’s One racked up more points than any other release of the past 12 months. And deservedly so. This modest but distinctly world class saxophonist, composer and bandleader has been acknowledged in America by a Grammy Award and lengthy tours with Chick Corea and Joe Locke, but previously has perhaps never quite received his just recognition in the UK, until now. Jon Newey


Tim GarlandTim Garland One


A new group and a new beginning for Tim Garland in what is the finest album by a British jazz musician for quite some while. First, a word about Garland’s virtuoso playing on tenor and soprano saxes, which has reached a level of excellence and maturity that is truly world class. On soprano he offers an evenness of tonal density throughout the registers of the instrument; nothing sounds pinched or forced, and while his articulation is precise and accurate, each note rings through with remarkable clarity even in legato passages. Expressing himself in melodic, rather than pattern-based, improvisation, his playing is virtually cliché free, often using ‘compositional’ devices such as the use of the rising line to create a feeling of tension. This feeling is also reinforced by the occasional use of side-slipping.

On ‘Bright New Year’ he plays with such freedom within form it represents a striking example of exemplary contemporary jazz improvisation. Equally, on ‘Colours of Night’ he exhibits a degree of both technique and taste (the two rarely go hand in hand) that few in jazz can equal. On tenor saxophone he retains this melodic lucidity, evenness of tonal density (from bell tones to false-fingered high notes at the extreme of the saxophone’s range) and on ‘The Eternal Greeting’ he gives a virtual master class in manipulating the rising line to potent and dramatic effect.

Garland has developed the story-telling privilege that is the province of the great jazz improvisers – a Garland solo is not a breakneck bunch of notes thrown at listeners for them to try and make sense of, but solos of architectonic construction that have a beginning, a middle and an end and take the listener on an absorbing journey. But even mastery of your chosen instrument at the level Garland has achieved (and which few in jazz can match) is not enough in jazz today. The challenge is to create an effective context to give expression to the improvisers art. Here again Garland scores, with an ensemble that has done away with the traditional piano-bass-drums role of the jazz rhythm section and placed the rhythmic role in the hands of keyboards, Ant Law’s eight-string guitar which covers the bass notes and Asaf Sirkis’ innovative drums/ percussion. This fresh approach – a development of the rhythmic approach adopted by his previous group Lighthouse – is integral to Garland’s compositional ingenuity with pieces written in a way that shows this unusual approach to rhythm to best advantage. Here, Asaf Sirkis emerges as an unsung hero with a performance that is surely world class. Rebello and Law are exemplary too, offering maturity and flair in both ensemble and solo that contribute significantly in making this album special. Stuart Nicholson


MarsalisBranford Marsalis Quartet with Kurt Elling Upward Spiral


It is quite remarkable how at home Kurt Elling makes himself in the Branford Marsalis Quartet, so much so that Marsalis later said he felt the singer was a natural fifth member of the group. Although Elling admitted to a little bit of nervous tension prior to the session – and why not, the group has been around since 1996 with very few changes in personnel and has established a tight little musical world of their own – the singer actually comes up with one of his best performances on record.

Working out on a collection of handpicked songs, most of which even the most diehard jazz fan will not have heard before, Marsalis’ expanded group comes up with a real ‘album’ experience, with a performance arc that leads from one song into the next without disjunction that together create an absorbing musical journey. Highlights include ‘I’m a Fool to Want You’, a duet between singer and saxophonist and Sting’s ‘Practical Arrangement’, while Elling makes a fine job of Sonny Rollins’ ‘Doxy’ using Mark Murphy’s lyrics. Stuart Nicholson


DinosaurDinosaur Together, As One


Electric Miles is still terra incognita for some; the point he left jazz, or went somehow mad. Bitches Brew’s brooding, splintered paranoia isn’t on Laura Jurd’s agenda. The abrasive tone of Elliot Galvin’s Fender Rhodes, though, and the way Jurd’s trumpet wraps mournful tendrils around the bassline on ‘Awakening’, after distantly roaring as if across a primeval forest clearing, inevitably recall Corea and company roughly sculpting a new sonic world. Rechristening her regular quartet Dinosaur gave fair notice of their thrilling power live, where they’re as likely to fly into soulful Sly Stone or JB’s terrain.

Their debut album, though, is a considered studio production, with a sense of space and shape. Though all Jurd compositions, Galvin often takes the lead. Switching to Hammond for the slow-rolling funk of ‘Extinct’, he’s back on Fender for progsoul riffing on ‘Primordial’ which recalls Van der Graaf Generator’s Hugh Banton. Then he slips below the tune’s surface on Hammond, becoming its smooth engine as Jurd sunnily soars, and Dinosaur stretch and strut. Jurd also offers warm balm on ‘Robin’. Her band’s focused joy replaces the darker eddies Miles traversed. Nick Hasted


DonnyDonny McCaslin Beyond Now


In the months following David Bowie’s death, musical tributes started to pour in, among them the disastrous Bowie Prom in September at the Royal Albert Hall. So when the real thing comes along you know it’s time to rejoice. Beyond Now is the outstanding new recording by the New York-based saxophonist Donny McCaslin with the same line-up that appeared on Bowie’s swansong Blackstar. It’s an exhilarating, heart-stirring hymn to a rock’n’roll icon, a rare breed of mega star who absorbed jazz undiluted into his genre-bending art pop aesthetic. It’s a love letter too, to someone who had a huge impact on these jazz musicians as both artist and human being.

From the epic dreamy pop-jazz soundscapes of ‘Bright Abyss’ and ‘Remain’, to the hurtling punk jazz of ‘Faceplant’ and opener ‘Shake Loose’, Lindner’s spiky synth-surge, the Guiliana-Lefebvre grooving juggernaut and McCaslin’s thrillingly ballistic sax improv make for a decidedly diverse and contemporary-sounding offering packing plenty of heat. Elsewhere, eerily inventive covers of the Bowie-Eno ‘A Small Plot of Land’ (vocals by Jeff Taylor) and Low period instrumental ‘Warszawa’ come in for tasteful treatment too. If a rock star has come up with one of the strongest jazz-infused releases of the year, Beyond Now is right up there with it. Selwyn Harris


MehldauBrad Mehldau Ballads and Blues


Following the epic, turbo-charged one man showcase on the retrospective 10 Years Solo Live and the exhilarating contemporary prog electronica fireworks of his duo Mehliana’s Taming the Dragon, Brad Mehldau returns to the more intimate format of the acoustic piano trio on which he initially built his inimitable reputation.

Blues and Ballads picks up essentially where Where Do You Start? in 2012 left off, with an entire covers collection featuring the usual suspects from The Beatles’ ‘And I Love Her’ (also featured on 10 Years Solo Live) and Paul McCartney’s ‘My Valentine’ from 2012, through to an exquisitely expressive take on Buddy Johnson’s widely-covered sleepy blues standard ‘Since I Fell for You’. More highlights include his rendition of the hip Largo producer Jon Brion’s sweet miniature ‘Little Person’ taken from his score to the film Synecdoche, New York and the sideways swing of the Charlie Parker blues ‘Cheryl’. Mehldau’s unique craftsmanship is undisputed but he also brings a real emotional depth to Blues and Ballads. Selwyn Harris 


LloydCharles Lloyd & The Marvels I Long To See You

Blue Note

I Long to See You marks a change of pace for Charles Lloyd; there isn’t anything quite like it in his discography since this an album of country influenced mood music. He returns to two of his originals from the 1960s in ‘Sombrero Sam’ and ‘Of Course, Of Course’, to his ECM years with ‘La Llorona’ and contributes a fresh original in ‘Barch Lamsel’, the album highlight among a repertoire that ranges far and wide to variable effect.

Bob Dylan’s ‘Masters of War’ could have been successfully edited to half its length, for example, in its present form an amiable noodle, and this seems to be the destiny of several songs. Part of the problem is the laid back playing of Bill Frisell, who sounds as if he could barely get out of bed in the morning. Lloyd plays well, but he does need someone to bounce off. There are nice moments: ‘Abide With Me’ would please the Anfield faithful, ‘All My Trials’ has elegance as long as Lloyd is at the microphone, while Willie Nelson’s ‘Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream’ somehow works in the context of the album. Dear old Norah Jones – she who bank rolled the survival of the Blue Note label – is unmistakably Norah, if you like that sort of thing. Great for iPod listening since this functions well as undemanding background music. Stuart Nicholson 


ESTEST Symphony EST Symphony


It would have been Esbjörn Svensson’s next project. Classically trained at Stockholm’s Royal College of Music, the work of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy and Shostakovich was close to his heart (I once heard him warming up for the Tuesday Wonderland recording session in the Atlantis Studio in Stockholm with Shostakovitch’s ‘Piano Concerto No. 1 Op. 35’), it was perhaps inevitable he would hanker to hear his music performed by a symphony orchestra. Sadly, it was not to be. However, this posthumous realisation of his ambition by his former colleagues in EST, Dan Berglund and Magnus Öström, and produced by EST’s former manager Burkhard Hopper is an impressive piece of music from whatever end of the musical spectrum you choose to gaze at it and surely something that would have given him a kick.

Arranged and adapted for symphony orchestra by Hans Ek, his writing has succeeded in capturing the emotionally engaging element of Svensson’s playing that appealed to those both inside and outside the jazz constituency. He has even managed to evoke the subtle electronics that Svensson occasionally used, creating an ambient haze of strings to surround the melody. In 2003, Svensson himself wrote three arrangements (Dan Berglund three also) for a project with 16 strings at Jazz Baltica in 2003, and one of Svensson’s arrangements, ‘Dodge the Dodo’, is enlarged by Ek here. On ‘When God Created the Coffee Break’ Ek has inserted a Svensson solo transcribed from Live in Hamburg for orchestra and it is fascinating how Svensson’s improvisation sounds like a composition in its own right and highlights how he actually seems to ‘play’ silence, which left windows through which we could enter his musical world. ‘The EST Prelude’ that opens the album contains another orchestrated session solo, and hooks you right from the beginning. Stuart Nicholson 


ImpossibleImpossible Gentlemen Let’s Get Deluxe


The Anglo-American supergroup The Impossible Gentlemen’s third CD on Basho Records hits you right between the eyes with its mix of seductively sing-a-long melodies, classy arrangements and tastefully succinct improvisation. The recording sees an extension of the instrumental palette with the addition of woodwind all-rounder Iain Dixon and Gwilym Simcock at his most versatile on various keyboards and tuned percussion instruments, as well as acoustic piano. The extra layer of sound is subtly and effectively woven into the arrangements as opposed to providing background fill.

The Metheny Group-like opening title track’s memorable hook has the new full-time bassist and longtime Pat Metheny Group member Steve Rodby laying down one of the most deliciously snaky electric funk bass lines you’ll hear for a long time. There are echoes of Chick Corea and Return to Forever on ‘A Fedora for Dora’ and it’s not hard to imagine Donald Fagen singing raspy vocals over the excellent ballad ‘It Could Have Been A Simple Goodbye’, the co-writers Simcock and Walker’s tribute to pianist John Taylor.

The Impossible Gentlemen might not feature too high on the hipster scale compared to an electric Brit jazz ensemble such as Troyka but the Sco-influenced grunge-funk of ‘Dog Time’ with growling dog samples is something that the aforementioned trio might well have been happy to come up with. ‘Terrace Legend’, about an unlikely Stoke City FC kit man, has a Zawinul-esque African-flecked groove while the contrasting closing piece ‘Speak To Me Of Home’ is reminiscent of Simcock’s sometime pastoral chamber trio Acoustic Triangle, with Dixon taking his only solo on soprano sax very well. It’s a brighter, more uplifting and assertive album compared with the previous two, but just as sophisticated. Selwyn Harris


AzizaAziza Aziza


The double bass jazz maestro Dave Holland turned 70 in October but shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, he seems to have turned up a gear or two instead; his recent work in education, live touring schedule and studio recordings bear that out. Last year saw him record an intimate straightahead duo album The Art of Conversation with Kenny Barron and before that, one of the best jazz recordings of 2013 with his new ‘electric’ fusion group Prism.

The Aziza collective grew out of discussions between Holland and Chris Potter, an influential saxophone musical partner of his since the 1990s. As with Prism, the electric guitar is a key building block of the ensemble but this time it’s the Benin-born Lionel Loueke, another pedigree individualist, who applies his unique mix of African folk music, contemporary electric sonic effects and jazz to the recording. His acid funk composition ‘Aziza Dance’ has a brilliantly shaped solo with tasteful keytar-like sound effects, somewhat reminiscent of the pianist Hiromi. Chris Potter’s lilting folky Caribbean ‘Summer 15’ has Loueke sounding more like an African Pat Metheny and the saxophonist’s eastern-flavoured ‘Blue Sufi’ really hits the spot with its 1970s-era Chico Hamilton-ish latin fusion sound and Loueke’s driving psych jazz-rock guitar. It hasn’t quite the same sense of adventure or raw group cohesion as his Prism CD, but it’s top level groove-jazz playing all the same. Selwyn Harris


PhronesisPhronesis Parallax


Ten years into their life as an increasingly tight-knit trio and it’s perhaps no surprise that Phronesis have named their latest album after an “apparent displacement of an observed object due to a change in the position of the observer,” or Parallax. Indeed, to an outside observer they appear to be at the top of their game, rising to the summit of the European piano trio pile thanks to consistently incendiary live shows and a string of equally compelling (sometimes live) recordings. Yet it’s tough at the top and the alternative perspective offered up on Parallax is of a band who, far from resting on their laurels, burst out of the gate with a set of nine polished yet propulsive new tunes recorded in a single day at the hallowed Abbey Road Studios. Having been at one of their adrenalin soaked gigs – one of three recorded – that resulted in their previous release, Life To Everything, this writer can attest to the near telepathic empathy that exists between bassist Høiby, pianist Neame and drummer Eger when the red recording light is on. Theirs is a hive-mind that thinks as one and navigates the trickiest of time signatures, displaced beats, lurching unison riffs or swerving solos with ease.

The good news with Parallax is that the move to a studio environment has done nothing to dampen the zeal with which they tackle the music, this in part thanks to the band playing the entire album beginning to end three times and then selecting the best takes for the final release. This has brought a strong narrative arc to the songs, with opener ‘67000 MPH’ careering along with freewheeling frenetic finesse. This is among several contrapuntal dust-ups across the set including Høiby’s atypical ‘Stillness’, Anton Eger’s karate-chopping drum capers on ‘Manioc Maniac’, and the hypnotic drive of closer ‘Rabat’. More meditative pieces include Neame’s chiming ‘Kite for Seamus’ and Høiby’s midnight mood on ‘A Silver Moon’. Through it all the band’s willingness to defer individual showboating for a combined sonic attention to detail has rarely sounded better: solos weave into a continuum of sound, never sacrificing a cheap technical thrill for a substantial musical statement. Far from bookending 10 highly successful years together, Parallax opens a new chapter full of musical riches from this most complete and compelling of bands.


Kit DownesKit Downes & Tom Challenger Vyamanikal


The idea of a ‘genius loci’, or spirit of place, permeates these recordings of church organ, saxophone and indomitable avian choirs. Keyboardist Kit Downes and saxophonist Tom Challenger are documented here locked deep in conversation with their surroundings – the churches of the Suffolk countryside – while nature, in turn, reciprocates with plenty of bonus backchat. The two elements settle on an unfolding habitual consensus detailed in moans and whistles. Cavernous drones – not unlike those pursued by Pauline Oliveros with her Deep Listening Band – resonate around the cloisters before the calming chirrups of birdsong break through (as on ‘Jyotir), slowing the pace down to Béla Tarr-like cinematic speeds (‘Maar-ikar’).

There’s a real sense that this meditative music is being borne on the breeze, riding a carousel of glorious vectors above our heads. While writers such as Iain Sinclair and WG Sebald have previously sought to map out their own personal psychogeographies of England, Kit Downes and Tom Challenger have created something far more universal, a democratic tone poem, where every imagination is invited to chart its own Suffolk landscape. 


LincolnJazz At Lincoln Centre Live In Cuba

Blue Engine

The stated mission of the Jazz at LCO is “to entertain, enrich and expand a global community for jazz through performance, education and advocacy”. These very worthwhile if slightly high-flown aims, apparent in the orchestra’s recent UK visit with its concentration on support for young players amidst its more specific concert commitments, were also carried forward when the orchestra visited Cuba in 2010, this very spirited double-album a record of their weeklong sojourn in Havana.

It took President Obama’s lifting of travel restrictions between the US and Cuba to get them there. Once in place, the band spread the word all over the city, working again with youngsters and performing a series of latin-flavoured pieces by band members, a selection of Ellingtonia, a hint of New Orleans and a bow to the innovations of Dizzy Gillespie with a nine-minute version of ‘Things to Come’, taken a tad too fast, all caught here. Much is made in the lengthy booklet note of the common musical heritage between the two communities, the evident enthusiasm of these local audiences adding support to the theory. Or maybe they’d just been starved of this righteous stuff. They clearly approved of Henriquez’s ‘2/3’s Adventure’ with its move into guajira rhythm, with Printup playing high while Irby’s bluesy arrangement of ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ may have surprised them but Rampton’s extended solo is a joy, as is Irby’s poised alto. Wynton’s ‘Vitoria Suite’ recalled his Ellington debt as does ‘Inaki’s’ Decision’, his conversational trumpet foregrounded. Thereafter, the incorporation of local artists adds spice where necessary. Otherwise, there’s a ton of music here, a vivid advertisement for the continuing vitality of LCJO jazz, catholic in its choices, eclectic in the variety of influences on offer but simultaneously joyous and celebratory, too. Temperley is magnificent on ‘Sunset and the Mocking Bird’, Crenshaw proves to be a pretty effective blues shouter on ‘I Left My Baby’ and Wynton solos at length throughout. What a mission and what an outcome! Peter Vacher


RedmanJoshua Redman and Brad Mehldau Nearness


The influential contemporary pianist and saxophonist’s musical relationship goes back to the early 1990s. It was then that a fledgling Brad Mehldau, who was fresh out of New York’s New School, got his first break touring and recording with a trend-setting Redman band that featured Christian McBride and Brian Blade. They’ve recorded infrequently since; Redman was a notable contributor to Mehldau’s 2010 Highway Rider and Mehldau on Redman’s sax-and-strings album Walking Shadows in 2013. But they did get to perform in a more intimate duo setting as well, first in 2008 and then for a run of concerts in Europe in 2011, a selection of which make up the tracklist on this outstanding new release Nearness, their first as a duo.

The opening Charlie Parker/Benny Harris’ ‘Ornithology’ thunders along at rocket pace but unlike other contemporary jazz interpretations of bebop standards, the tune is reinvigorated rather than violated. The pair’s contrapuntal to and fro-ing is breathtaking in its heated exuberance and sharp tiki-taka exchanges, brilliantly and unpredictably resolving what seems to be musical dead-ends. On another bebop classic, Thelonious Monk’s ‘In Walked Bud’, Mehldau’s playful one-handed motifs and inventive re-harmonising underscores Redman’s shapely swinging bop narrative. The pianist’s Beatles-ish ‘Always August’ has a deeper bluesy intimacy in this setting compared to the version on Highway Rider. The less buoyant ‘Mehlsancoly Mood’ is Redman’s punning homage to his partner who’s in accompanying mode, the descending bass movement reminiscent of a song by Nick Drake, a Mehldau favourite. Redman’s luxurious, smoky tones on the title track, ‘Nearness of You’, echoes the old swing sax masters while a 15-minute near symphonic version of Mehldau’s ‘Old West’ demonstrates the pianist’s attachments to the ‘romantic’ classical era. There’s none of the boring self-indulgent battle of wits or in-jokes that can occur when jazz superstars decide to have a matey get together; it’s all about serving the song and playing in the moment. Selwyn Harris


ScofieldJohn Scofield Country For Old Men


I cannot begin to comprehend how you deal with the death of a son. For over two years the Scofield family and friends have journeyed the earth fulfilling their son’s wish to have his ashes scattered across the world. But there’s something fitting that, as that global project concludes, Scofield has created a record about home, roots and family. Country at its best tills the most fundamental of fields, the relationships with our nearest and dearest, and few are as well qualified as Scofield to explore that territory. Sometimes he plays straightahead, true to the melody as on the gorgeous ‘Mr Fool’; sometimes he cuts to the bare quick of the song’s emotional heart, as on the bop breakdown of ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’. It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate band for Scofield: Goldings is gold dust throughout, whether adding Larry Young-type swells on the Hammond or paying tribute to Johnny and The Hurricanes on an uproarious take on ‘Red River Valley’. But it’s his spare piano, downright Monkish on the joyous ‘Mama Tried’ that calls forth broad smiles. Stewart and the surely immortal Swallow are there for the music at all times, tight and bluesy on a heart-breaking ‘Wayfaring Stranger’, and attacking ‘Jolene’ like it was the first time they’d heard it. This isn’t country for old men. This is a musical country for us all. Andy Robson


PeltJeremy Pelt Jive Culture

High Note

Recorded last September, released in the States in January and finally available here, but by now, Pelt will have been back in Brooklyn’s Systems Two studio making his 2017 CD. Jive Culture is surely his most important album so far and confirms this reviewer’s opinion that, despite the number of excellent players around, Pelt is the most creative trumpeter on the scene today. And this is no ordinary quartet. The irrepressible Ron Carter contributes some of his very best work since the Davis Quintet days. You can feel that he knows it’s a special date. Billy Drummond, who in a way was the catalyst for the recording, plays a very important role in the session, with hard-hitting but sensitive, intuitive fills, which urge Pelt to play so emotively, and he helps to build the tension and unexpected climaxes of the performances. Danny Grissett is arguably the most sympathetic pianist for Pelt’s compositions. The least well-known member of the group, he is inspired by the occasion and comes up with stimulating solos and encouraging comping throughout.

Pelt brought in five new originals, some relatively simple, others with much greater depth. The former include the opener ‘Baswald’s Place’, ‘Akua’ and Carter’s tune ‘Einbahnstrasse’. The latter, later in the CD, are probably the standouts – ‘The Haunting’, the brilliant ‘Rhapsody’ and the closing, restless ‘Desire’. The two remaining tracks are unhackneyed standards – Cole Porter’s ‘Dream Dancing’ (the arrangement of which almost sounds like a Pelt original) and Jeremy’s ballad feature, ‘A Love Like Ours’, played, as always, with heart-breaking tenderness. This is a brilliant record with four outstanding performances. Tony Hall


BillBill Frisell When You Wish Upon A Star


As with his previous 2014 release Guitar in the Space Age, Bill Frisell continues to mine 1950s-60s popular music culture for inspiration on his new recording for OKeh, the recently revamped Sony imprint. This time though he brings his inimitable signature to film and TV themes predominantly from the same era. His band is the guitar trio which recorded Beautiful Dreamers in 2008, with the addition of the distinctive Thomas Morgan on bass and sometime collaborator Petra Haden on vocals. The strongest selections are the suite-like arrangements of themes including Elmer Bernstein’s haunting ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ which is given a country and folk-rock music makeover with Frisell and viola player Eyvind Kang setting it off beautifully. ‘Fairwell to Cheyenne’ gives Ennio Morricone a reggae-ish twist and the themes from Psycho benefit from some Frisellian humour. Petra Haden sings wordless vocal on Morricone’s ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’, and the lyrics of title themes such as ‘You Only Live Twice’, ‘Moon River’ and the album’s title track, songs that are by now over-familiar are refreshed somewhat with a dry sentimentality and a vocal that’s tuned sensitively to Frisell’s arrangements. It’s a beautifully-sculpted chamber strings soundscape and the guitarist’s artfully layered, soulful mesh of overtones, rockabilly twang and other effects he’s made his own comes with his usual impeccable taste. Selwyn Harris


YoussefDhafer Youssef Diwan of Beauty and Odd


Tunisian oud player-singer Youssef has proved two things over the best part of two decades: that, firstly, he, like the best bandleaders, can assemble the most effective, often international collaborators, and secondly, his overall creative drive remains undimmed. There is some significance to be read into the cultural identity of this latest project insofar as it is very much ‘the New York’ album, defined by the presence of a quartet that represents the riches of that city’s jazz scene in no uncertain terms. Yet the overarching conceptual premise of the album – compositions of haunting lyricism within the framework of relatively unusual time signatures – is sufficiently strong to make you question exactly what a New York combo is supposed to sound like. Williams, Guiliana, Parks and Akinmusire play with the kind of pin-drop delicacy that one might associate with classical musicians at various points on the set, crafting ambiences that are cinematic in shadow play and understatement. But they also kick robustly on the higher tempos, locking into the wavering beats so organically as to make the uneven numbers ‘felt’ as much as they are heard. As good as the band is, and as skillfully as the arrangements uphold an evolutionary line from Moorish to Spanish music to an undefined space that acknowledges both ambient electronica and soundtracks, Youssef’s immense personality is well to the fore. His oud playing has a stark rhythmic drive that is offset by the majestic, aerial quality of his voice, and it is a combination that pays dividends on this affecting set of songs. Kevin Le Gendre


BarnesBarnes/O’Higgins & The Sax Section Oh Gee!


The onrush of Barnes on record continues, as does the flow of releases on his Woodville label. Having heard this ensemble excel at last year’s Swanage festival, it’s easy to understand why he felt it should be recorded. The co-leaders are form players in any situation and each contributed charts to this five-sax group, reworking a mixture of classic pieces by Benny Carter, Edgar Battle, Tadd Dameron and Ellington et al, with just a single Barnes original among the 10 performances.

There’s spirit aplenty in the up-tempo opener, Carter’s ‘Doozy’, wherein the band replicates the composer’s original sax section writing and is notable here for King’s pulsing line and De Krom’s spring-heeled drumming. ‘The End of A Love Affair’ showcases the full section’s ease in tackling a complex arrangement, five breathing as one, AB’s alto the first to emerge, with Mayne, spikier, before Sharp bustles in on baritone. Mr and Mrs O’Higgins show up pretty well too as each plays chase with Barnes and Mayne. There’s a sense throughout of everyone up on their toes for this session, the section blend spot-on, as is their collective articulation, everyone soloing ably and at will, with this rhythm section daring them not to swing. A note too for Aspland, another player who knows how to rise to the occasion, always anxious to add value.

Just to hear this gang play their version of Dexter Gordon’s solo on ‘The Chase’, fast-moving and lapel-grabbing is a joy, as is their ‘reduction’ of Ellington’s celebrated ‘Ko-Ko’ chart, with Sharp echoing Carney’s time-honoured line and Barnes’ limpid clarinet snaking in and around the harmonies. Listen and expect to be bowled over. Peter Vacher


DeJohnetteJack DeJohnette/Ravi Coltrane/Matthew Garrison In Movement


Despite the size of Jack DeJohnette’s discography, it is probably fair to say the drummer’s best recordings under his own name are to be found on the ECM label. In Movement sees his return to the label with two younger musicians whom he has known since their childhood. The leading voice in the proceedings is saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, whose playing here must surely be his finest on record. In an album of free and structured improvisation and group interaction, he makes light of the creative burden this trio context demands.

‘Rashied’, with DeJohnette and Coltrane in duo, is an album highlight inspired by Rashied Ali’s duets on Interstellar Space with Ravi’s father John. It also provides a leitmotif for an album of fascinating musical movement where sounds and styles are freely mixed, developed and exchanged, abruptly morphing into new shapes and directions. Garrison excels on bass – in dialogue with the saxophone, in dialogue with the drums – and exploiting electronics to create sometimes trippy, sometimes colouristic episodes which add unexpected tonal contrasts within the trio format. Stuart Nicholson


WollnyMichael Wollny Trio Klangspuren


Wollny’s growth as an artist on record has been fascinating to follow and while not all his projects have yielded 50 carat gems it’s only in the doing that an artist discovers a little more of himself, including his or her strengths and weaknesses. It’s how an artist’s vision is shaped.

In Wollny’s case, aspects of his musical personality seem to be coalescing very quickly, and with it the realisation the piano trio is the best forum to focus his talent. At the end of October 2015 Wollny’s trio embarked on a Karsten Jahnke Jazz Nights tour of 14 German cities. It prompted the German broadsheet Süddeutche Zeitung to announce, “Wollny’s off on tour. Just get yourself there. Awesome!” More than 10,000 people took that advice, and the final night of that tour is captured on the CD of this CD/DVD release. Recorded on 13 November 2015, it shows how much has stayed the same in Wollny’s fast maturing approach and what is different.

The awe-inspiring head-banging performances that defined his group [em] are there to be drawn upon – and often are, to dramatic effect – but so too is a more carefully calibrated emotional range that values slow tempi, thoughtful, restrained moods and melodic development. He had to go out into the dark (Wunderkammer from 2009) to arrive at this point – but now there is an arc to his improvisations (and the presentation of this concert) that speak of continuing artistic growth – the development of the lyrical aspect of his musical personality and greater awareness of managing inside/outside, dissonance/consonance and polytonality and polyrhythmic playing to specific aesthetic effect that suggest he is well on his way to redefining the piano trio.

The concert draws most of its repertoire from Weltentraum (2014) and Nachtfahrten (2015), but the versions here have an ease of execution that define Wollny’s accomplishments in a trio context. New bassist Christian Weber (who made his first appearance on record with the trio on Nachtfahrten from August 2015) has integrated and assimilated himself into this group in a way that his American predecessor never quite achieved and deserves credit, together with the consistently excellent Eric Schaeffer, for their contributions to a quite exceptional album. The DVD comes from a performance at the Leverkusener Jazztage on 11 November 2014, and here Weber’s contribution can more accurately be measured by comparing his playing to that of Tim Lefebvre on bass on Weltrentraum Live – Philharmonie Berlin that calls on a very similar repertoire. It’s almost as if Weber’s meant to be in the band. Highlights here are ‘Phlegma Phighter’ (a Schaefer original that audiences love in its stirring complexity and impressive execution) and ‘Little Person’ that allows the Romanticist in Wollny to surface. Stuart Nicholson

Jazzwise: artists to watch in 2017


Tomorrow is the question: These are the jazz starts you should look out for in 2017

If you’ve been lucky enough to spend the last 12 months stranded on a desert island, free from wall-to-wall news, social media and the world going to hell in a handcart, you may be shocked on your return to the mainland at how the tectonic plates of society have so dramatically shifted. Indeed, with our own island set to become increasingly isolated, it’s time to dig out your favourite desert island discs (and a bottle of your favourite brew) and look to music, and in particular jazz, as a beacon of passion and creativity away from the bickering and bigotry that is becoming the new normal. Below we have asked leading jazz writers, concert promoters, club owners and jazz panjandrums to contribute thoughts on who will inspire, illuminate and ignite the year ahead.

Kevin Le Gendre, Jazzwise, Echoes, BBC Radio 3 Jazz Line-Up
Young Swedish guitarist Susanna Risberg was a highlight of this year’s Umea festival. A brilliantly expansive soloist with a rapier attack, the Berklee graduate could make a real impact if she translates her live shows into a coherent studio recording.

Richard Williams, Artistic Director of the Berlin Jazz Festival,
Every time I hear Anna-Lena Schnabel (pictured above, left), a 27-year-old alto saxophonist and composer based in Hamburg, I’m astonished by the emotional impact of her playing. She’s an original.

Paul Pace, Ronnie Scott’s Club, Spice of Life
Alto saxophonist Camilla George with her post-bop CGQ purveys a focused passion and charm, while recently evolved power quartet TriForce connect to a contemporary audience with their heady fusion of hip-hop, funk and spiritual jazz.

Eddie Myers, The Verdict Jazz Club, Brighton
So many great artists played at New Generation Jazz this year that it’s hard to pick, but pianists Joe Armon Jones and Ashley Henry (pictured above, right) really shone . We’re excited to hear what Zeñel are going to do when they visit us in Brighton in 2017 – a hip, cooking, super-talented trio of players who aren’t even old enough to vote yet!

Mike Flynn, Jazzwise
Young saxophonist Camilla George is not just a confident soloist but a gracious bandleader too, fronting her own quartet with cool authority. Also playing with great poise are her bandmates, with artful pianist Ashley Henry already causing a stir and Daniel Casimir’s wickedly stylish bass-playing is sure to make him one of the most in-demand low-enders around.

Jon Newey, Jazzwise
Whether with Nerija, Gary Crosby’s Groundation or the Arun Ghosh band, guitarist Shirley Tetteh is fast developing a highly individual sound and approach, inspired as much by Robert Wyatt and Ambrose Akinmusire as well as the usual jazz and prog guitar suspects.

John Fordham, The Guardian
The young Welsh double bassist and composer Huw V Williams’s debut album Hon (Chaos) was a very striking debut for him this year – a sophisticated but pungent merger of freebop, Laura Jurdlike lyricism, morphed Cuban grooves and a lot more. Young Manchester drummer-leader Johnny Hunter’s conjunction of 1960s hard bop, post-rock and middle eastern music on his While We Still Can (Efpi).

Spencer Grady, Jazzwise
Fire, water and spirit. Biblical essentials to throw off the 2016 jip, the source material of US saxophonist Jeff Lederer who, with his Brooklyn Blowhards, aims a harpoon straight to the heart by joining the dots between Albert Ayler and Herman Melville.

Steve Rubie, 606 Club
Guitarist Rob Luft has, in a very short time, established himself as a fluent and creative player with an impressive versatility. He has become a regular at the 606 with artists ranging from Gareth Lockrane and Byron Wallen to vocalist Luna Cohen. I see him as being a mainstay of the UK scene for many years to come.

Mike Hobart, Financial Times and Jazzwise
Binker and Moses: Lean and articulate MOBO-winning sax and drum duo with clear aesthetic, they deserve all the praise. Also check Yusef Kamaal: drummer Yussef Dayes and keyboardist Kamaal Williams head-up a killer band that keeps jazz contemporary, funky and relevant.

Jez Nelson, Somethin’Else on Jazz FM
Mansur Brown is a young South London guitarist and a member of ‘new fusioneers’ TriForce. He’s got chops to die for. Currently plays a few too many notes, but is going to be amazing!

Andy Robson, Jazzwise
Sometimes you can big someone up too soon, but Rob Luft’s guitar is straining at the leash to get heard more widely, especially in the Big Bad Wolf band. From Björk to Derek Bailey, that’s gotta be good.

Peter Quinn, Jazzwise and The Arts Desk
A previous winner of the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition, Dallas-based Ashleigh Smith possesses a lustrous alto and a style that’s infused with R&B and funk. Her aptly-named 2016 debut, Sunkissed (Concord Records), also reveals a gifted songwriter.

Roy Carr, Jazzwise
He may well have a number of albums to his name, but New York saxophonist Donny McCaslin’s involvement in the making of David Bowie’s Blackstar amounts to much more than an artistic (and commercial) achievement. Hopefully it will attract a much wider audience to the all-encompassing jazz community.

Steve Mead, Manchester Jazz Festival
Keep an eye on Manchester saxophonist Kyran Matthews. He leads a local platform for airing new jazz compositions – The Manchester Jazz Collective – with his energetic playing, astonishingly mature writing and tireless organising.

Tony Hall, Jazzwise
The UK’s Quentin Collins and Brandon Allen are a world-class frontline team, as are Steve Fishwick and Osian Roberts. In the US, watch out for pianist-composer Victor Gould and the remarkably talented Pedrito Martinez.

Rob Adams, Glasgow Herald, Jazzwise
Glasgow-based pianist Fergus McCreadie has been on the radar since his mid-teens. Great ideas and the skill to bring them to fruition in any situation – solo, trio, big band – mark him out.

Jan Granlie, editor
Look out for the Danish/Swedish/ Icelandic/Norwegian band, Horse Orchestra, based in Copenhagen and their second album, Four Letter Word. Here you get everything from Fletcher Henderson to Sun Ra and free jazz, played by seven young men with a lot of interesting ideas and lead by piano player Jeppe Zeeberg, one of the most talented, young Danish jazz musicians today. A marvellous band!

Peter Bacon, the jazzbreakfast. com, Jazzwise
Birmingham Jazz Orchestra, formed by trumpeter Sean Gibbs to play bespoke material, comprises the richest cream of this city’s young musicians. Exemplary ambassadors for Birmingham and for jazz.

Robert Shore, Jazzwise
Norwegian singer-songwriter Jenny Hval and her album with Trondheim Jazz Orchestra and Kim Myhr, In The End His Voice Will Be The Sound Of Paper, is maybe the first of her projects to have troubled Jazzwise’s reviews pages. It’s a great invitation to check out her back catalogue of experimental art-house folk-tronica.

Nick Hasted, Jazzwise, The Independent
Moon Hooch: This Brooklyn trio’s self-described Cave music – you could also call it rave-jazz, or hammering, improv-heavy House – is following GoGo Penguin in further breaking down the barriers around jazz to a young public losing its wariness, by returning the music to the dancefloor.

Dan Spicer, Jazzwise, The Wire
Mancunian guitarist Anton Hunter is a key figure in quintet Sloth Racket, and half of the duo Ripsaw Catfish. Now his own 11-piece ensemble Article XI demands to be heard.

Jane Cornwell, Evening Standard, Jazzwise
Yussef Kamaal are longtime friends, drummer Yussef Dayes and multi instrumentalist Kamaal Williams (aka Henry Wu). They channel their raw energy into tracks influenced by Monk, Goldie, 1970s jazz-funk and the city of London itself.

Helen Mayhew, Jazz FM
I really enjoy the playing and writing of young guitarist Tom Ollendorff, recent graduate from the Royal Welsh College of Music And Drama, and recipient of a 2016 Yamaha Jazz Scholarship, definitely one to watch and listen out for.

Alyn Shipton, Jazz Now, Jazzwise and The Times
Guitarist Billy Marrows – winner of the 2016 John Dankworth Prize for Composition, and leader of an octet that is exploring ideas mingling Asian Gamelan music with what he describes as the “grooves, harmony and improvisation” of contemporary jazz.

Brian Glasser, Jazzwise
Racking up acclaim over the past few years, Laura Jurd is boldly going where no woman has gone before – especially with her band Dinosaur, but with other diverse collaborations too.

Tony Dudley-Evans, Cheltenham Jazz Festival and Birmingham Jazzlines
Elliott Sansom, a young pianist from the West Midlands and recent graduate from the jazz course at Birmingham Conservatoire. He was a finalist in the BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year competition. Also check the Stoney Lane label, set up in Birmingham by Sam Slater to reflect the burgeoning local scene.

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