Cully1

"There will never be peace until God is seated at the conference table", sang the Blind Boys of Alabama. Given our proximity to Geneva and the backlog of international conflicts that need resolving, the lyrics seemed particularly prescient.

Cully Jazz's two-week programme is an eclectic mix of jazz, rock and funk. So exploratory and progressive that the Blind Boys' gospel and blues came over as refreshingly traditional – a group that will always be true to its genre and history; not a sudden time-signature switch, weird effects pedal, or dissonant chord to be heard. Led by founder member (incredibly since 1939) Jimmy Carter, this was a moving and beautifully performed embodiment of the strength of those oppressed for so long in the US South, the rich vocals lit by shafts of instrumental brilliance from guitarist Joey Williams and Trae Pierce on bass.

Set in a venerable wine-makers' village on the shores of Lake Geneva with distant Alpine views, amid tumbling terraces of ancient vineyards, there can be few festivals as scenically awe-inspiring as this. Even noisy neighbour Montreaux (no relation, apparently), at the end of the lake can't really improve on the aesthetics. The four main venues are close together and right at the village's heart, and include the sweaty, ramshackle Caveau pub, which was home to fired-up jazz groovers Kuma, led by Matthieu Llodra on keys and Arthur Donnot on tenor, who propelled an after-show party each night with plenty of guests – mostly young Swiss players like Leon Phal (sax) and Gauthier Toux (piano, next month coming to the UK), all with real chops and depth. Some of these were playing other gigs at the event, such as tasteful trumpeter Zacharie Ksyk, also appearing with interesting improvisational group Francesco Geminiani Electro 6tet.

Back on the main stage, Le Chapiteau, Omer Avital Quintet played a breathtaking set. At times, Avital's double-bass seemed to take the role of dance partner as the expressive Israeli/US bandleader swayed and shimmied along with his own grooves. Particularly impressive was the way traditional Middle Eastern music, samba and Abdullah Ibrahim-style moods were incorporated in a seamless fashion; nothing seemed forced or artificial as is sometimes the case with composers described as 'genre defying'. Powerful melodies, powerful grooves, this was exultant jazz in which super soprano/tenor player Asaf Yuria and explosive drummer Ofri Nehemya shone brightly.

Canadian singer songwriter Mélissa Laveaux brought her riff-oriented, sparse sounds to the medium-sized Next Step venue. Her lush vocals, distinctive finger-picking guitar, and Haitian-heritage tinged compositions were as striking as her onstage aura. The jazz purists may have given her trio a miss but few could deny her strong identity and sheer talent. As with many 'jazz' festivals, an open mind was required – it was never likely we'd be hearing 'All The Things You Are' on a regular basis. But the audience accepted the challenge of clashing genres with a happy heart with the banjo-thrashing Cyril Cyril playing 100 metres from inventive, reflective Shai Maestro, who drew a crowd at the Temple that could barely be accommodated.

Also stretching boundaries were the truly impressive quartet SHIJIN, definitely worth looking out for if they appear in the UK anytime soon. Appearing like a jazz ZZ Top with ample facial hair, their set veered from lyrical to angular with plenty of unexpected twists. A multinational group, Swiss keyboardist Malcolm Braff (pcitured, top) boasted a Darwinesque beard and a delightfully rambling cross-rhythmic soloing approach, somehow with echoes of Zawinul. US saxist Jacques Schwarz-Bart's rich tone and careful solo construction provided the melodic glue for the unit, before he too happily took to the stratosphere.

Cully2

A more edgy approach was taken by Swiss singer Lucia Cadotsch, whose Berlin-based Swing Low trio played the main Le Chapiteau venue, a bold move by the programmers considering the subtlety and nuances of Cadotsch's performance. A few audience members took to their heels during the show, which for some may have been challenging. Cadotsch's ethereal but strong and clear voice was accompanied by Swede Otis Sandsjö on tenor sax, a master of harmonics and split tones, and superb bassist Petter Eldh, also Swedish. The sax provided an all-pervasive soundscape behind the vocal, one that the split tones ensured remained dark and foreboding, imbuing the reworked folk tunes, standards and originals with emotional resonance, but not one that was always comfortable. It was an impressive piece of playing by Sandsjö, not only for the false fingerings but the sheer stamina required.

In great contrast, this set was followed with a performance by the rather more crowd-pleasing Lisa Simone whose dynamic vocal and languid, elegant movement was superbly supported by Reggie Washington (bass), Hervé Samb (guitar, later seen jamming with the funksters at Caveau) and the classy drummer Sonny Troupé who played a lovely, lyrical solo. There were plenty of references to her mother Nina and their difficult relationship, but Simone's tunes proved uplifting, finishing with an ecstatically received foray into the crowd and a rousing rendition of Cannonball's 'Worksong'.

Cully4

Jean-Luc Ponty, Kyle Eastwood and Biréli Lagrène's trio were recently at London's Barbican and last year at Ronnie's. Here they delighted Le Chapiteau with their verve, Lagrène's brilliance giving Eastwood a real test in terms of anchoring the standards ('Blue Trane', 'Mercy Mercy Mercy', 'Oleo', etc) and originals ('Stretch', 'Andalucia', 'To and Fro'). Lagrène this time was relatively sparing with his Django flourishes, deploying Metheny-esque chord substitutions and a wide range of gizmos to great effect. At times, he and Ponty reduced the audience to laughter with their off-hand virtuosity.

This is a forward-looking, diverse festival with helpful staff in an utterly beguiling setting. No wonder this is the area people look to for world peace!

– Adam McCulloch

It seems like every time I pick up a great crossover album at the moment and there's a trumpet player on it that trumpet player turns out to be Keyon Harrold. The Missouri-born New York City-based musician is best known for his work on the Miles Ahead soundtrack (he was the trumpet double for Don Cheadle's Miles Davis and his young rival, Junior). But his list of credits is humbling. In the past two decades, he's worked with Jay Z, Maxwell, D'Angelo, Billy Harper and Gregory Porter. And he pops up on a slew of recent recordings, including Common's Black America Again, Chris Dave's long-awaited Drumhedz release and Terrace Martin's Velvet Portraits.

But Harrold is fast becoming a star solo artist in his own right. I enjoyed his major label debut, The Mugician (a nickname and portmanteau coined by Cheadle himself), when it was released last year. Robert Glasper and brilliant vocalist Bilal both feature and there's some gorgeous orchestral writing on there – slicing strings and sonorous bass clarinets. Performed live though, by Harrold's New York trio plus keys player Ashley Henry, a star of the London new wave, it was something else entirely. I didn't realise Harrold's sound was that bold, that his jazz chops were that good or that he could stretch out that far. There's so much feeling in his playing, whether he's crafting mellow lines or hammering out ear-shredding pyrotechnics, you know he means every note.

The set began the way the album does, with Harrold soloing around a voicemail message from his Mum, Shirley, telling him to never give up on his dreams. As an emotionally repressed Brit, I usually roll my eyes at heart-on-sleeve stuff like that. But Harrold played with such passion, I could feel a lump rising in my throat. Though he considers himself a jazz musician at heart, Harrold describes his music as a "gumbo" of different styles. The album's title-track brought skanking reggae; a version of 'In A Sentimental Mood', featuring singer Andrea Pizziconi, sounded like Ellington remixed by Slum Village – all lopsided beats and lowriding basslines; Pizziconi and China Moses added soulful backing vocals to 'Wayfaring Traveler'; and the dreamy 'Stay This Way' became a thrashing rock anthem, with a blazing guitar solo from Nir Felder.

The band were on fire. Henry's playing was more assured and more varied than ever before, and later in the set bassist Burniss Travis opened up, decorating a heavy arrangement of The Beatles' 'She's Leaving Home' with thrumming, high-register phrases that sounded like flamenco guitar. He lived up to his nickname, 'Boom', on fusion burner 'Bubba Rides Again', hammering out a one-note bass groove – a chest-shaking low-frequency piledriver pounding out of the subs. When his time came, drummer Charles Haynes exploded the beat, then brutally and repeatedly stamped on his bass-drum pedal. I love it when drummers play like that: when you know they're not even thinking about complex cross rhythms or related time signatures, they're just smashing things at random. Sometimes the moment demands it.

But this was more than just a great gig. It had impact. It felt important. Harrold is highly political. He runs a music non-profit called Compositions For A Cause with Andrea Pizziconi, and she joined him on stage to sing 'Circus Show', an ode to the ludicrous, terrifying times we live in. The emotional climax was the ballad 'MB Lament', written for Michael Brown, a black teenager who was gunned down by police in Ferguson, two blocks from Harrold's father's home. It was dedicated to all victims of law enforcement "debacles", because "nobody deserves to be killed just for walking down the street". Its mellow, reflective bassline morphed into the head-jolting groove of 'When Will It Stop' and the band, plus guest altoist Soweto Kinch who stormed out of the wings and bit down hard on his reed, unleashed more righteous fire.

On the journey home, I couldn't stop thinking about that photograph taken during the Black Lives Matter protests in Baton Rouge in 2016. Perhaps you remember it. It shows a young black woman in a flowing dress calmly making a stand, alone in the middle of the road. Two police officers in riot gear are closing in on her. She's about to be arrested. But in the split second that the photograph was taken, it looks as if the officers are falling back, overawed. It's like there's a forcefield around her. She looks devastating and untouchable – majestic, even – a beacon of non-violent resistance, radiating grace and power. 'My Queen Is Ieshia Evans'.

In the biggest moments, when Harrold was pouring his heart out, singing the blues through his horn, preaching pride and determination, this performance felt the way that photograph feels. If that picture were a scene in a film, Harrold's music would be playing.

– Thomas Rees

 

Seven-piece Austrian newcomers Shake Stew are set to release their second album, Rise And Rise Again on 4 May on the Traumton Record imprint. Led by dynamic 30-year old bassist/composer Lukas Kranzelbinder the band's unusual line-up includes a second electric/upright bassist Manuel Mayr, two drummers, Niki Dolp and Mathias Koch, and three horn players – Clemens Salesny on alto and tenor sax, Johannes Schleiermacher on tenor sax and Mario Rom on trumpet.

Collectively they create a driving, highly-melodic sound that's fuelled by frenetic Afrobeat grooves and fiery solos. Establishing themselves through a sold-out six-month residency at the renowned Porgy & Bess Jazz Club, Kranzelbinder invited UK multi-reed star Shabaka Hutchings to perform with the band there and subsequently to record two tracks on Rise And Rise Again. Ahead of its release Shake Stew have unveiled the visually stunning video (see below) for the first song on the album, 'Dancing in the Cage of a Soul', featuring dancers Zoé Afan Strasser and Vito Vidovic Bintchende. The band will be touring the UK in 2019.

Mike Flynn

For more info visit www.shakestew.com

Renowned expat US saxophonist Jean Toussaint makes an emphatic return with his eleventh album, Brother Raymond, which is set for release on 18 May on Lyte Records. The album is inspired and pays tribute to Toussaint's mentor and former boss Art Blakey, and marks the 25th anniversary of the great drummer's death.

Toussaint first came to prominence as a member of Blakey's Jazz Messengers in 1982, subsequently moving to the UK in 1987 and going on to become a respected jazz educator and a highly regarded solo artist. Brother Raymond also features an extensive cast of young lions and experienced UK players including trumpeters Byron Wallen and Mark Kavuma; trombonists Dennis Rollins and Tom Dunnett; saxophonist Tom Harrison; pianists Jason Rebello, Andrew McCormack and Ashley Henry; bassists Daniel Casimir and Alec Dankworth; drummers Shane Forbes, Troy Miller and Mark Mondesir and percussionist Williams Cumberbatch Perez.

The album is launched at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club, London on 4 June, with an extensive tour on the following dates: Cambridge Jazz (27 Sept); Hermon Chapel Arts Centre, Shrewsbury (28 Sept); Taliesin Arts Centre, Swansea (6 Oct); Herts Jazz Festival (7 Oct); Crucible Theatre, Sheffield (12 Oct); Norwich Jazz Club (16 Oct); RWCMD, Cardiff (masterclass/concert, 19 Oct); Trinity Laban Masterclass (1 Nov); SevenArts, Leeds (15 Nov); London College of Music (masterclass, 16 Nov); Hull Jazz Festival(16 Nov); The Blue Room, Lincoln (17 Nov); NCEM, York (18 Nov) and Calstock Arts Centre (1 Dec).

– Mike Flynn

For more info visit www.jeantoussaint.com

 Sloth

UK improvising quintet Sloth Racket – led by baritone saxophonist Cath Roberts, with Anton Hunter on guitar, Sam Andreae on alto saxophone, Seth Bennett on bass and Johnny Hunter on drums – take their forthcoming third studio long-player, A Glorious Monster (released on the Lumionous Label on 4 June) out for a test drive during the following dates: Hundred Years Gallery, London (26 May), The Royal Oak, Bath (27 May), The Peer Hat, Manchester (29 May), Ye Olde Spa Inn, Derby (30 May), The Basement, York (31 May), DJAZZ Festival, Durham (3 June), Traverse Bar, Edinburgh (5 June) and Wharf Chambers, Leeds (7 June).

– Spencer Grady
– Photo by Agata Urbaniak

For more details visit www.slothracket.co.uk 

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