Archie Shepp Barbican 191118 038

This evening gets off to a flying start with Simon Purcell's excellent Red Circle band of London jazz A-listers, augmented by the impressive presence of Cleveland Watkiss. Clad in a white tunic reminiscent of the most uncompromisingly old-school type of dentist, he negotiates the twists and turns of Purcell's adventurous compositions with skill and panache, and matches the strength and stamina of Chris Batchelor and Julian Siegel's frontline armed only with his clear, powerful voice, as drummer Gene Calderazzo sets off percussive bombs underneath.

Introduced, to knowing cheers, as "a music maker for the many, not the few", Archie Shepp delivers a professorial preamble on the link between the Art Song and the Spiritual before launching into his one-time mentor Coltrane's composition 'Wise One'. His voice on tenor remains as unique as it has for 50 years – a hoarse, watery, wavery tone, notes eliding and skimming around the melody, building up to a splintery peak and descending again in a tumbling blurry cascade, treading a pathway inside and outside the harmony that's all his own. 'Isfahan' gives space for pianist Pierre Francois Blanchard to let loose his florid but carefully controlled virtuosity, reminiscent of Shepp's long-ago collaborator Michel Petrucciani; Matyas Szandai on bass and Hamid Drake on drums show that they're slick operators too.

Archie Shepp Barbican 191118 394

Then it's down to business: enter a nine-strong choir, extra saxophone and trumpet, and Amina Claudine Myers, matching Shepp's trademark fedora with her fez as she takes her place at the Hammond organ. Shepp asks for a note from the pianist, then without further introduction leads the band in song – the old-fashioned uplifting gospel of 'All God's Children Got A Home In The Universe'. 'God Bless The Child' meanders somewhat before Shepp turns in a touchingly sincere verse in his impassioned, froggy baritone, but classic protest era 'Blues For Brother George Jackson' is as timely and powerful now as it was back in 1972, and gets a fittingly stirring rendition.

Each song is laden with significance, joyous or solemn, from Ellington's 'Come Sunday' (Carleen Anderson raises the roof) to Massey's 'The Cry Of My People', while Shepp's starkly personal tribute to his mother, 'Rest Enough', blurs the boundaries between the personal lament and the political voice. Overall though, despite the palpable sincerity of the performers, and the weight of context underscored by Shepp's carefully enunciated introductions, the impetus of the performances themselves tends to waver, and some of the warmth gets lost in the Barbican's capaciously austere space. There's a preponderance of slow tempos and long, slightly disorganised explorations, and sometimes not even the mighty Drake can really keep the fire blazing. Then comes 'Ballad For A Child' – beautifully sung at the Hammond by Myers, with the lush texture of the choir, the sensitive accompaniment from the musicians, and the leader's plaintively wavering saxophone all combining for a moment of real magic before the close.

– Eddie Myer

– Photos by Mark Allan/Barbican

The first names have been revealed for next year's Cheltenham Jazz Festival, which runs from 1 to 6 May at venues in the picturesque Cotswold Spa Town. These include the return of multi-Grammy-winning jazz vocalist Gregory Porter, who's forged a strong bond with the festival since he first appeared there in 2012.

Significantly, Porter will also be next year's 'Artistic Curator', which sees him select artists for the programme, make some guest appearances and perform his own concert on Saturday 4 May. Other names announced for the festival include acclaimed US saxophonist Joshua Redman, who reunites with his long-standing trio of bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Gregory Hutchinson, all appearing at Cheltenham on Saturday 4 May. Also confirmed are Redman's one-time collaborators, The Bad Plus, who make their debut appearance at the festival now with their revitalised line-up of pianist Orrin Evans alongside founding members Reid Anderson and Dave King, appearing on Sunday 5 May. Completing this first tranche of names is 78-year-old Brazilian bossa nova-jazz funk legend Sergio Mendes, who also makes his debut at Cheltenham next year.

With further names to be announced in early February the festival will look to build on its most successful year in 2018, which saw 30,000 tickets sold and a further 20,000 people enjoy free performances on the festival site and around the town. With this in mind, the organisers are planning to increase the capacity of the Big Top to accommodate 2,000 people (from 1,300), as well as redesign the layout of the festival site in Montpellier Gardens. Further venues will still include the Jazz Arena, Town Hall, Parabola Arts Centre, Daffodil Restaurant and Hotel Du Vin. Tickets go on-sale to Cheltenham Festivals members on 27 November and general public on 29 November. Jazzwise is media partner for the festival.

Mike Flynn

For full details and tickets visit www.cheltenhamfestivals.com

A house of praise is the perfect setting for one of the key curtain raisers of this year's EFG London Jazz Festival. The spiritual resonance of Billy Harper's music has captured the imagination of many audiences since his debut in the early 1970s, so his arrival at St. James', lower Clapton, east London, aka Church Of Sound, with its short pews framing an open but compact stage area, is something of a dream scenario. He is joined by a British band comprising players several decades his junior – pianist Robert Mitchell, trumpeter Yelfris Valdes, double bassist Tym Dylan and drummer Moses Boyd – but the 75-year-old Texan cuts an eyebrow-raising dash as he enters.

The tenor saxophonist is wearing the distinctive black leather tunic, giving him the allure of a medieval warrior, which graced classic albums such as Trying To Make Heaven My Home, and he launches straight into music from that period that has considerable significance to this day. Harper, last seen in Britain as part of Messengers-like supergroup The Cookers, found a way of taking the gospel-infused hard bop vocabulary of the likes of Art Blakey and Lee Morgan, both of whom he played with in his formative years, and imbuing it with another modernist dimension. A highlight from the first set such as 'Believe For It Is True', is a perfect example of his aesthetic. A leisurely vamp on one chord is embellished by slides on the bass and purrs of cymbals over which a stinging, stabbing theme is punched out to suggest another tempo. The melody has a choppy, fiery intonation that induces tension amid the rhythmic gentility, thus building a very astute bridge between soul and avant-garde sensibilities that explains much of Harper's musical appeal, which is really emotionally charged communication that nonetheless has a cutting edge. Compositions juxtapose not just light and dark, but softness and spikiness, that, given Harper's frequent use of biblical-based titles, might evoke man's inhumanity to man as well as declarations of faith in the Lord. These are contemporary hymns that appear to question as much as they uplift. They suit a world of strife.

BillyHarperLJF2018 MG 9358

Harper's sound and improvisatory skill reinforce this; powerful, full-bodied tone with a needle-like articulation free of any vibrato, so that the stark, flinty character of the horn underlines the immense gravitas of the compositions. When Mitchell takes an intro with daringly lengthy pauses between chords, to which Boyd and Dylan have to respond manfully in sonic hide and seek, another aspect of Harper's craft is revealed – the alternation of lento and presto phrasing to enhance drama rather than melodrama. Each player, particularly Mitchell, is up to the task. His solos also have an incendiary energy that plays well off the leader's.

In the second set the 12-piece Khoros Choir arrives to perform parts of Capra Black, Harper's timeless debut, and the soaring quality of the music played by the quintet is made more explicit. For a largely young audience this is a precious moment, as it is possibly the closest millennial ears might come to experiencing something of the force of what John Coltrane and Albert Ayler were doing in the 1960s. It is uncompromising music predicated on devotion and healing that Harper has spent his life extending and personalizing, enriching traditions from within rather than without. 'Priestess', proves a fitting closer. Written when Harper was a member of one of Gil Evans' best orchestras, the song is a majestic ode that has become the saxophonist's enduring signature tune, if not a standard that wasn't born on Broadway.

Kevin Le Gendre
– Photos by Roger Thomas

 Ezra-2

"This is about joy and happiness and celebrating everything that's good," proclaims Femi Koleoso. "There's no boundaries to how you express yourself – dance, shout, be mad quiet and stare – but let's lose the barriers, we ain't superstars or nothing." He's talking about the crash barriers around the stage, but he might as well be talking about barriers musical, cultural or social, as from the word go it's one big sweaty inclusive party here at Patterns' seafront nightclub. 'Juan Pablo' from their eponymous debut gets things started – a ferocious Afro-beat assault, with Femi flailing at the drums like a man possessed and his bro TJ on bass, a massive presence centre-stage, leaning into the beat as the twin-horn frontline punch out riffs and the close-packed crowd start to move.

Ezra Collective have come a long way since their Brighton debut in the tiny Verdict jazz club as part of the New Generation Jazz programme three years ago – sell-out shows, international touring, JazzFm awards and Femi's appearance as star of the Champions League TV ad campaign all contribute towards a sense of boundless confidence. The energy seems inexhaustible as the album tracks are extended and sped up into high-octane workouts over pulsing urban-Afro grooves, and though Femi insists "this ain't just jazz" the band's instinctive grasp of dynamics and interplay adds a level of depth to the music. There are real conversations taking place onstage, most notably between Femi and keys man Joe Armon-Jones as they toss accents and displaced metrical figures back and forth to each other without ever impeding the flow of the rhythm.

But, ultimately, it's all about delivering the message to the people through the music. There's a sense of relaxed, impromptu cameraderie between the band members; like his contemporary Yussef Dayes, Femi has a habit of downing sticks and prowling around the kit mid-song, before leaping back on to drive the groove even harder. TJ abandons his bass guitar to treat us all to some impromptu dance moves; the horns wander off and on stage as the road manager appears at intervals to dispense towels, send hand signals to the soundman or bump fists with the band. Appearances are deceptive however. Ezra have learnt how to put on a show, with Femi as the preacher leading his congregation and all the band playing their parts. There is a real sense of pace, with nicely judged solo spots for each member which never drag into indulgence. Tenor man James Mollison's fluent, creative feature leads into a version of Sun Ra's 'Space Is The Place' and the audience respond by demonstrating that new phenomenological development at jazz gigs attended by the under 25s – singing the wordless melody back to the band in a raucous ragged unison. Dylan Jones on trumpet has a soulful excursion that shapes itself into the old chestnut 'Pure Imagination' – elsewhere he demonstrates tough chops and enough power, precision and imagination to really fly over the inexhaustible updraught of energy from the rhythm section.

This is a band really in their element; facing a room packed full of their diverse peers who dance, scream their approval, film on their phones and jostle for position in the most good-natured way possible. With a fair smattering of greyer heads also among the crowd, it's a truly mixed demographic, reflecting back the sense of positivity and inclusion emanating from the stage. The finale sees the whole club get down low on the floor before rising up to a real hands-in-the-air moment. As Femi exhorts us to "study what the prophet says and use it to move forwards", Ezra Collective seem like a band determined to do just that. If they can harness this vibe in all it's magnitude in the studio and send it out across the world, they could be set for big things indeed.

Eddie Myer

 GoGoP .LWorms 9

The Concorde usually hosts mid-ranking rock bands or popular club nights. Tonight it's completely sold out for an acoustic piano trio. GoGo Penguin walk onstage like rockstars to John Carpenter style atmospherics – Chris Illingworth plays one repeated note from the piano amid the swirling sea of haze and reverb. There's a surge of excitement from the crowd as they recognise the intro to the latest release, A Humdrum Star – good market penetration there, guys. Then Nick Blacka on bass and Rob Turner on bass kick in with a rushing, tumbling rhythm and we're instantly caught up and carried away.

GoGo Penguin have been working towards their vision of jazz music as spectacle since their inception, and bigger stages and more financial clout have brought their design closer to fruition. The band have a level of togetherness, telepathic communication, and control at high volume that come with years of touring at a level that affords decent monitor systems. While both Blacka and Turner play with a shade more freedom than on the record, each move is still carefully plotted around the matrix of Chillingworth's repetitive piano figures to achieve maximum impact, and nothing is left to chance. The M.O. has remained basically consistent throughout their five releases to date; plangent minor chord progressions over Blacka's rock solid, powerfully accurate bass and Turner's busy, restless drum figures, ever building towards the big final reveal.

The dominant mood might be described as euphoric melancholy – a big-sky emotional uplift that perhaps has it's closest parallels in the indie-rock of artists like Bon Iver. But everything has gone up a gear since their last release; added lights, pulsing strobes and extra sound gear are deployed to such overwhelmingly immersive effect that it's hard to remember that the band we're watching has the same basic line-up as, say, the Bill Evans Trio. Tuner's kick-drum now has the sub-bass impact of the proper club music – Blacka's bass retains it's natural tone, with audible clicks and growls, to function as the articulate voice at the centre of the sound, and is granted most of the improvisational space – Chillingworth's piano is enhanced with massive reverbs to mimic the electronica that inspire the band's vision. They have successfully mined the seam of wistful ambient hipness personified by such emblematic post-millennial artists as Bonobo and Nils Frahm and added a level of muscular virtuosity to deepen the appeal; the audience ranges from young twenty-something urbanites to grizzled jazz connoisseurs, and their absorption in the music's shamelessly direct emotional manipulation is total.

'One Percent' from their last v2.0 release is something of a mission statement, and the eerie reproductions of electronic data glitches that the band play in the closing moments have been expanded to an almost supernatural degree of tightness – this is a truly unique musical language that the trio have developed. Blacka has an unaccompanied solo spot that reveals an unexpected Celtic tinge to his phrasing, and also takes on the role of compere, breaking the tension with carefully timed announcements of unassuming Northern matiness. The final track, 'Transient State', takes the formula and refines it to the extent that the strobes are pulsing in and out in perfect sync with the opening and closing hi-hat. The next step is surely some kind of VR-enhanced, all-out sensory assault as GoGo Penguin take their unique vision out across the world, as far as it can take them.

Eddie Myer
– Photo by Lisa Wormsley 

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