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As Return to Forever bass legend Stanley Clarke (pictured above) opened his set at this village festival on the vineyard-laced shores of Lake Geneva with a stupendous flurry of notes, it was clear we were in for a treat.

Clarke’s young sidemen – Beka Gochiashvili (piano), Salar Nader (tabla), Evan Garr (violin), Shariq Tucker (drums) and Cameron Graves (keyboards) – kept up with Clarke magnificently, providing plenty of jaw-dropping moments with some wildly exciting playing.

But as dramatic as Clarke’s electric bass-playing was on 'Goodbye Porkpie Hat' and 'Schooldays', even more impressive was his total mastery of double-bass. The nimble, controlled power of his work on early RTF albums was evident on 'Dear John' and the epic 'No Mystery', during which he slapped and flicked the strings and body of the instrument to create a wall of bass and percussive sounds.

Finishing with two funk numbers from his days with George Duke, Clarke brought the sellout crowd to its feet, but nearly dented the vibe by falling off the stage. It could have been a nasty moment for the maestro now in his late sixties, but instead we were treated to a brief spot of crowd-surfing before the laughing bassist re-emerged. Phew.

Stacey Kent, the following night’s headliner, by contrast, played a highly controlled, intimate set – her playful voice breezing through originals such as 'Make It Up' and 'Bullet Train'. Every note was perfectly chosen and positioned by an impeccable quintet, with Kent’s Brit husband and co-writer Jim Tomlinson pure velvet on sax and flute, excelling along with pianist and former Incognito MD Graham Harvey. Songs rarely exceeded four minutes and Kent’s spiel, in fluent French, was very much appreciated by the crowd. The set finished with Tomlinson sharing vocals with his wife on a bossa and then a delicate, moving rendition of 'Stardust'.

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Among groups that really blew away the Cully crowds was outstanding Afro-beat ‘big band’ Antibalas from America, an 11-piece with echoes of Fela Kuti’s Africa 70 outfit. They got the audience dancing from the get-go and never slacked off a hypnotic intensity. Founded by baritone sax player Martín Perna in 1998 and fronted by the vividly attired Nigerian-born Duke Amayo, Antibalas’s set boasted beautifully voiced hornlines and gritty sax solos, intricate rhythm guitar and percussion, all woven together seamlessly. 

UK quintet Ezra Collective quickly won over festivalgoers with their energy, spirit and sheer chops. Drummer Femi Koleoso’s power and precision sparked up opening track, 'The Philosopher', and outstanding trumpeter Ife Ogunjobi displayed a well-rounded tone across the range of the instrument on 'People in Trouble', featuring a cunning 'Someday My Prince Will Come' quote. It’s not hard to see why Kamasi Washington’s a fan.

Another fine young trumpeter was self-effacing, award-winning French-born player Shems Bendali, whose youthful quintet supported Stacey Kent. His mature post-bop compositions were melodic but accommodated plenty of unexpected twists and turns.  

Also French-born, drummer Anne Paceo’s sextet got a warm response from the large crowd awaiting Stanley Clarke’s gig with an eclectic set involving two beautifully blending vocalists (Ann Shirley and Florent Mateo) and ethereal soprano sax from Christophe Panzani who extracted maximum wistfulness from an effects rack. Paceo’s distinctive drumming exhibited a great sense of space and lyricism, but also real fire at times.

My penultimate gig of the eight-day festival took in charismatic guitarist/vocalist Thomas Dutronc, who enjoys a notably large female following. His six-piece band’s genre-jumping set took in jazz manouche, chanson, pop ballads, gypsy and straightahead jazz with virtuosic contributions from violinist Blanchard Pierre bringing to mind last year’s Jean Luc-Ponty gig here.

Opposite the main stage the Caveau des Vignerons wine cellar drew in people leaving Dutronc’s gig as blasts of hip jazz-funk wafted through the door. This emanated from young resident band KUMA, led by tenor player Arthur Donnot and Matthieu Llodra on keys. It would be easy to imagine this infectious quartet wowing clubs and bars in the UK with their dazzling groove-oriented playing, driven by drummer Maxence Sibille, a master of rhythmic displacement.

Adam McCulloch 

 Foto Runhild Heggem 2 XL

As a snapshot of the great charm of Vossa Jazz's weekender in western Norway no image is more apt than this: saxophonist Trygve Seim, one of the country’s consistently interesting artists harmonising with vocalist Sinikka Langeland and accordionist Frode Haltli just outside the small caravan-cum-sauna with which he travels from gig to gig. The backdrop is a stunning lake, shimmering in mid April-sunshine with snowcapped hills in the distance.

Visual beauty aside, that combination of instruments could be seen as a leitmotif for Nordic jazz with folk undertones, but that is far too reductive a summary. There are several other performances throughout the weekend that show how similar elements can yield music of vastly differing characters. Haltli leads his own avant-folk ensemble, whose clearly signposted intent is well met, while elsewhere artists do not so much look to create ‘fusions’ as engage in a kind of open sky experimentation that crosses many stylistic borders. The trio comprising drummer-percussionist Thomas Strønen, pianist Ayumi Tanaka and multi-reedist Marthe Lea produces one of the most intriguing sets of the weekend, shifting coherently between a kind of floating, gauzy sound, enhanced by the gossamer understatement of Strønen’s brushes, woodblocks and sticks, and withering bursts of tenor, recorder or two-horns-at-once in the style of Rhasaan. Lea’s vocal is an unexpected bonus insofar as it brings a haunting anthem-like quality to the uninterrupted suite in which Tanaka also makes an impression with ghostly countermelodies and drifting textures.

Spacemusic Ensemble is also a revelation. Led by saxophonist-composer Signe Emeluth, the sextet makes much of a rich electro-acoustic palette in which a hefty tuba and Ra-ish synths entwine vividly with the voice of Rohey Taalaj, here in a distinctly different mode to Gurls and Rohey. She performs some demanding wordless vocal lines that twist and turn through eerie chords enhanced by the engagingly sinister sonic web woven with smart precision and joyous abandon.

Both these gigs take place at Osasalen, an intimate space just a short walk from the Park hotel which has several venues, from the gym-like Vossasalen to the smaller Festsalen, Pentagon and Café Stationen, each of which is a stone’s throw from one another, and thus invite a steady stream of punters over the whole weekend.

Yet one of the highlights of the festival takes place in the evocative setting of Finnesloftet, a 13th century banqueting hall whose sturdy wooden frame might still be standing when camera phones have clicked to extinction. Sudan Dudan, consisting of two vocalist-instrumentalists, Marit Karlberg on the slightly cymbalom–like langeleik, and Anders Erik Roine on guitar and Jew’s harp, keep a small audience rapt with traditional songs whose deep melancholy is spiked with some invigorating modernist contours. A duo of a very different kind, the Swiss-Albanian vocalist Elina Duni and British guitarist Rob Luft, also makes a favourable impression with its mixture of pan-European folk, intricate comping and loop station counterpoint.

While this is enjoyable a moment of quite sublime beauty comes by way of another guitarist, Danish master Jakob Bro (pictured above), whose quartet featuring his compatriot, veteran flugelhorn player Palle Mikkelborg, gives an object lesson in how to create fraught but graceful elegies in which the leader’s whispery phrases and mist trails of effects are an effective canvas for the horn player’s concise, sometimes curt figures that often hang tantalisingly in the air. The result is music where stillness is anything but static. Which is sadly not the case with trumpeter Matthias Eick’s set of well-executed but nonetheless colourless themes. Also underwhelming is rock-edged guitarist Hedvig Mollestad who replaces her usual trio with an expanded line-up that includes Portugese trumpeter Susanna Santos Silva, and the result is a slightly ungainly layering of sounds, which don’t quite maximise the substantial individual talents.

In contrast, the glowing charisma and lordly tone of Malian vocal legend Salif Keita, backed by a superlative band, have the audience on its feet, though it feels as if a gig with such a high feel-good quotient should have perhaps closed, rather than opened, the festival. Having said that a handful of potent performances by Nordic artists also win over the crowd with a mixture of intensity and humour. Swedish baritone saxophonist Mats Gustafsson’s The End, featuring the extraordinary vocals of Sofia Jernberg, exudes the kind of fearsomely uncompromising energy that has defined his work from The Thing to Fire! Orchestra, while Danish drummer Kresten Osgood has a raucous, sometimes rampaging take on small group aesthetics that owes a debt to Ornette and Ayler, though the dodgy vocal is all his. Finnish band Gourmet, featuring saxophonist Mikko Innanen is in a league (and world) of its own. The tinder dry humour and quirky, appealing songs, which are largely instrumental pop with strong soloing, strike a chord with punters that aren’t sure what to make of six guys dressed as five-star waiters. The local sheep’s head is not on the joke-laden menu.

Kevin Le Gendre
– Photo by Runhild Heggem

 Mvula

Love Supreme continue to expand the brand by bringing an all-day jamboree of jazz-and-related-musics to London's Roundhouse, following their success last year. That event was dominated by the emergent New London Jazz scene – this year’s different, highly diverse line-up provides an interesting snapshot into where we are now.

Representing the old school, Hexagonal are in the packed upstairs bar for Jazz In The Round, showing the youngsters in the crowd how it’s done. It’s a tight, punchy 45-minute exploration of the inexorably grooving, powerfully melodic legacy of leader John Donaldson’s twin muses McCoy Tyner and Bheki Mseleku, with Jason Yarde on alto leading the soloists in playing tag-team over Tristan Bank’s hyperactively flexible kit.

Supreme Standards fills up for Dowdelin’s super-soulful Kreol-inflected electro-pop, spiced with Caribbean flavours and rooted by Raphael Philibert’s Gwa-Ko drum.

Nobody would ever accuse Judi Jackson of understatement, but she certainly has plenty of star quality. She fills the big room with her personality, in fishnets and wispily draped scarlet gauze. Fortunately, she has ample vocal ability to back it up. Yet, despite her excellent young band’s best efforts, there’s a dearth of really memorable material to hang all the talent upon.

Layfullstop dispenses with the band to lay out a crisp, London accented singjay act, her agile delivery and stage presence drawing universal appreciation from the capacity crowd. 

Back upstairs in the bar, Liran Donin furnishes unfortunate proof of the old adage about everyone talking through bass solos. You have to push to the front to appreciate his virtuosic Avishai Cohen stylings, but with the help of some sterling work from drummer Ben Brown he ends up winning the day.

No such problems beset Melt Yourself Down; their punky art-skronk has one dynamic level – full-on – and their frontman Kushal Gayan is all infectious  passionate intensity. Leader Pete Wareham looks like a cross between a gaucho garage mechanic and an Inquisition-era cardinal in his boilersuit and signature hat.

Back at the Jazz In The Round, Alina Bzhezhinska has packed such a crowd in with her new trio that it’s impossible to move. Who would have thought that jazz harp could be such a draw? She lays out the Alice Coltrane/Dorothy Ashby moves with her usual aplomb to rapturous reception. New kids on the grime/jazz fusion block Neue Grafik delight with a set featuring the talents of Emma-Jean Thackray on trumpet and Vels Trio’s Dougal Taylor on drums. 

Kamaal Williams offers his customary four-to-the-floor jam session in the big room upstairs, but the low-end gets lost in the cavernous space and much of the vibe goes with it. Jay Phelps’ contributions as surprise guest on trumpet add some welcome focus.

Laura Mvula's engineer isn’t daunted by the challenge of the Roundhouse’s legendarily difficult acoustic and the sound is clear and massive. Her band is scaled back to an all-star trio of Oli Rockberger, Troy Miller and Yolanda Charles, and she stands well forward, a tiny figure in white, armed only with her keytar and her huge voice. The mass keyboard textures point out her music’s essential kinship to the ambitious pop of Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush. In between she chats to the crowd like a true pop star. We’ve travelled a fair distance from jazz as it’s often understood, but this broad church approach is what Love Supreme does best, and noone seems to be complaining.

Eddie Myer 
– Photo by Adrian Brown

JUNE 22EMPIRICAL

Multi-award winning London four-piece Empirical release the second part of two new EPs, Distraction Tactics, with a live launch at Ronnie Scott's on Monday 6 May. Released on 3 May on the band’s own label, Empirical Music, the new EP, and last year's Indifference Culture – are named after two compositions from the band’s bassist Tom Farmer, which, according to the group, “tap into the twin societal evils of the rise of social media-induced narcissism and diminishing empathy for our fellow human beings – trends that leave us ill-equipped to take on the orchestrators of today’s culture wars who seek to distract us with a constant stream of fake news and unprecedented political scandal”.

Featuring bassist Farmer, alto saxophonist Nathaniel Facey, drummer Shaney Forbes and vibraphonist Lewis Wright, the band taped the music immediately after a run of their relentless ‘pop-up’ shows, which saw them play 130 live sets to more than 8,000 unsuspecting commuters and shoppers in London, Berlin, Birmingham and Cheltenham – footage of which you can watch below. Commenting on the shows Farmer said: “After such an intense run of gigs we were completely fired up and it was a case of, let’s just play!”

For more info visit www.ronniescotts.co.uk/empirical 

Watch an exclusive live video of the band performing at last year's EFG London Jazz Festival here:

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Say what you like about America (and I frequently do), she sure knows how to breed phenomenal jazz musicians. The Indianapolis based American Pianists Association furthermore have proven adept, since 1992 (when the jazz prize first alternated with the classical equivalent) at cherry picking the best of the best. It’s odious in the subjective world of the arts to posit such terminal superlatives, indeed APA Artistic Director/CEO Joel Harrison insists the five who make their cut for the APA are referred to as “finalists,” there are no “losers” or “runners up.” But with a $50,000 first prize (twice the cash purse of the 2018 Monk Competition, which is an international event) and $50K’s worth of artist support in the form of a label contract/promotion with Mack Avenue, the APA Awards are hotly contested. For one entrant (nominated finalists are selected by a “blindfolded” panel 13 months prior and subsequently perform and teach in the Indy community), this edition of the Awards was especially nail-biting. Harlem based, Miami born Emmet Cohen (above) had been in the finals on two previous occasions in 2011 and 2015 and, now aged 29, this was his last shot at the title. Though undoubtedly a brilliant young musician, would Cohen’s apparent insouciance be deemed less serious than the relatively sober Dave Meder (who recently released what is already one of my CDs of the year, Passage); the even-keeled, though also dashing Keelan Dimick; the fiery and passionate Billy Test or the disarmingly sincere and amusing Kenny Banks Jr? 

“After having gone through the competition a few times, I’ve learned that you ultimately can’t control what others think of you,” Cohen commented to Jazzwise. “I had a great teacher, Shelly Berg, who would always say ’Don’t try, just be. If you try you can fail, but you can’t fail at being.’ That was my mentality for this journey – I was going to be unabashedly myself.” Having witnessed Cohen in action at the 2015 event, it might be true to say however, that now at instances, he reined in his protean chops. One such moment might have been during the penultimate night of Discovery Week during which each contender performed solo and with trio at the Jazz Kitchen. After rousing renditions of ‘Our Delight’ and Ellington’s ‘Black and Tan Fantasy’ with swaggering stride, two fisted skills to the fore, the debonair Cohen surprised with a distilled take on Cahn and Van Heusen’s “The Second Time Around” (even though this was in fact his third time).

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Cohen’s fellow finalists didn’t spare the horses over the course of two exhaustive sets and had their own strategies for getting over. Banks set the tone, tongue in cheek, when he acknowledged “It’s that kinda night, ain’t it?” before digging into an episodic, latin tinged arrangement of ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’. The feisty Test embarked on Miles Davis’ ‘Nardis’ with a vengeance, approaching sheets of sound in eights exchanges with drummer Kenny Phelps, elasticating the bridge and zithering an outro, his technique and emotional commitment dazzling. The ever alert Phelps deployed his goat toenail shaker for afro-cuban color during Dimick’s take on Dizzy’s ‘Con Alma’ which the 28-year-old Floridian piano prodigy followed with ‘My Shining Hour’ replete with stride passages at both ends of the dynamic range and a surprising modal ending. 

When intensity soared, encouraging jazz grunts came from Kurt Elling, seated with Dee Dee Bridgewater in the capacity club, whilst judges Stanley Cowell, Chris Mees, Helen Sung, Will Wakefield and Renee Rosnes poised ears at a table in the back of the room. Rosnes later commented “I was delighted to hear all the magnificent talent… and honoured to be part of the judging panel for the second time. It feels good to know that the future of the music is assured. Although there is only one winner, I look forward to following each pianist’s musical journey.” During a brunch get together with journalists and judges at the glorious Japanese styled-home of benefactor Peggy Watanabe the morning after the Jazz Kitchen showdown, Rosnes and Cowell each jammed with Sung on a beautiful Steinway. Steinway & Sons CEO and onetime concert pianist Ron Losby was also in attendance and Marvin Blickenstaff played rhapsodic Schumann and Schubert for an insider audience, including Bridgewater. The latter, who served as MC for the finals, topped her ongoing fashion show with an iridescent outfit at the Gala on Saturday evening at the Hilbert Circle Theatre. “Joel Harrison told me to wear something ‘sparkly’ so this disco ball is what I came up with” joked Bridgewater, who went on to exchange quips with Elling who riposted “I came dressed as a middle age white male.” Elling performed five masterful duos with each pianist, giving each a magic moment. With Banks he sang “Georgia on My Mind” for the first time, countering Banks’ ingenious bridge with a bluesy falsetto. 

Kurt Emmet Dee Dee 2019 9 26

The second half of the program featured commissioned Brent Wallarab arrangements of Monk’s ‘Work’, with the orchestra backing Meder; a playful ‘Get Happy’ with Banks; an over-length ‘Little Niles’ that showcased Dimick’s inventiveness and Billy Test investing Bob Dorough’s 'Devil May Care' with limpid hues. Cohen’s Fats Waller medley included perfectly articulated glissandi among other joys. He exuded supreme confidence as usual but when it was announced he had at last triumphed he seemed fazed and limply held his engraved glass bowl that serves as APA trophy. Having followed Cohen’s exploits back in 2015, he saw me from the stage and said under his breath, implausibly, “I’m a faker.” Word was he was fighting back tears. This was touching and underscored what the APA inspires and engenders. Joel Harrison is committed to furthering the careers of these artists, (incidentally, finalists received $20K consolation prizes – four times the figure from 2011 when Cohen first participated), but the unavoidably competitive nature of proceedings really sharpens their skills, wits and also professional respect for each other.

In later questioning Cohen if he’d had to overcome any nerves, he talked of his experiences playing with such elders as Ron Carter, Benny Golson, George Coleman and at the Village Vanguard with Christian McBride and how he’d dealt with high pressure situations. “I think everything connects back to the breath – singing, talking, any kind of natural, human phrasing are all powerful models for how jazz musicians improvise.” For the last year or so, Cohen has used yoga as a tool, “it’s helped me become more in tune with my breath, even when the heart is racing. As corny as it sounds, smiling helps (nerves) go away too. I shot a smile at those musicians in the big band and remembered that for me, music is fun. All-in-all I was nervous but able to naturally mask it.” So self-confidence is hard won too, it doesn’t come with DNA. “I put all the love and respect I have for jazz into every note and feel lucky, humbled and grateful to have come out with the prize.”

Michael Jackson (story and photos)

Page 7 of 274

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