Former Talking Heads front man and renowned solo artist David Byrne curates the 22nd edition of the Southbank Centre’s Meltdown Festival which begins today and runs until 30 August, following other high profile names who have also curated the event such as David Bowie, Ornette Coleman, Yoko Ono, Robert Wyatt and Ray Davies.

With a typically diverse line up of experimental and cutting edge artists appearing this year, Byrne has selected three jazz and noise related artists including the earth-quaking improv drone-meisters Sunn O))), who bring their sonic wall of noise to the Royal Festival Hall on 18 August.

The bill also features the hip-hop fuelled heavy horn-led grooves of Chicago’s Hypnotic Brass Ensemble (QEH, 20 Aug), and the welcome return of genre-splicing big band composer and sample innovator Matthew Herbert who will perform jazz-charged house music from his latest album The Shakes. Herbert appears with his new band that includes jazz keyboardist Sam Crowe, singers Ade Omotayo and Rahel DebebeDessalegne and a small brass section.

– Mike Flynn

For more info visit www.southbankcentre.co.uk/meltdown

Usually when a festival the size of Manchester reaches a major milestone they call in the cavalry – jazz titans like the Marsalis Brothers, Charles Lloyd or Chick Corea come to take care of the fireworks and help put up the bunting and what you get is a programme full of international heavy hitters. But that’s not really the point of MJF and never has been.

This festival is less about bringing the world to Manchester and more about showcasing the best that the North West has to offer – which is saying a great deal. This is a city with a proud musical tradition after all – the home of Chetham's and the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM), the Hallé Orchestra and the BBC Phil. It’s the parade ground of several of the UK’s most flawlessly twee brass bands and the indie hub that gave us Oasis, Elbow and The Smiths (which just about makes up for the Bee Gees).

Manchester’s jazz scene is one of enviable strength and depth and MJF’s programme has always been heavy on local bands with a view to flaunting and nurturing the city’s musical output. Though there were a smattering of international jazz stars on this year’s bill their sets certainly weren’t the highlights – at least during my visit, on the final weekend of the festival’s 10-day run.

I’m a huge fan of Robert Glasper. His duo performance with fellow Houstonian Jason Moran was one of the standout gigs at last year’s London Jazz Festival and I was privileged enough to watch his Experiment band play a blinder at the Sage Gateshead in 2013. His trademark blend of jazz, hip hop and R&B is one of the defining sounds of the past few years, one that has spawned legions of imitators and turned new audiences on to the tradition. Yet I found his MJF set, in front of a sell-out crowd at the RNCM, hard going.

The pianist took to the stage with his recently reformed trio of bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Damion Reid and the three men displayed impressive interactive powers across a series of tracks from latest album Covered, cut with Prince’s “Sign O’ The Times” and extended quotes from “Afro Blue” and “Till It’s Done (Tutu)”, by neo-soul pioneer D’Angelo. But on the whole the gig felt aimless and self-indulgent. Bursts of solo piano from Glasper lacked direction and the grooves were all on one level – laid back and lethargic. They would have made perfectly pleasant R&B beats, with a vocalist to add interest, and I wouldn’t have minded a bit if they’d been on the playlist at a house party, but as material for a sit down concert they left a lot to be desired.

Sunday’s set of ethereal soundscapes and indie pop-inspired originals from hotly-tipped French trumpeter Airelle Besson, winner of the Django Reinhardt Prize and this year’s French Jazz Musician of the Year, was also a little disappointing. Besson’s quartet played well enough, with vocalist Isabel Sorling contributing arcing lines that glowed like moon beams thanks to some subtle electronic enhancement. But the writing felt cluttered and the group’s strategy of allowing tracks to evolve organically (though perfectly sound if properly handled) made for a lot of wandering moments.

Gorka Benítez, a tenor player and flautist from the Basque Country representing Spain on behalf of the Manchester branch of the Instituto Cervantes, gave us an inspiring set full of Iberian flair and forays into free jazz that saved the away team’s blushes. But it was the local bands, and those with a local connection, who ensured that this anniversary went off with a bang.

I have my reservations about GoGo Penguin’s brand of jazz-inflected, acoustic dance music, which can be formulaic at times, but it’s hard not to be swept along by the energy and there was no doubting that the trio played up a storm, headlining the Thwaites Festival Pavilion on Friday night with tracks from v2.0 and their forthcoming debut for Blue Note. There's a primal quality to their melodies. Like a handprint on the wall of a cave, they awaken something within you and they get your pulse racing. The crowd was clearly delighted to see them back on home turf and greeted them with a thunderous roar.

John-Ellis-1-credit--Peter-Woodman
Just as engrossing was the premiere of Evolution: Seeds and Streams, by Mancunian pianist John Ellis (above),who headlined the first Manchester Jazz Festival back in 1996. Part of the MJF Originals series of new commissions, it was a piece of gently-unfolding, understated beauty – drifting in a world of its own, somewhere between chamber music, jazz and ambient art rock. There were yawning, richly-voiced horn lines; tinkling kora grooves; pointillist, pizzicato strings; snatches of sampled bird song and whispered vocal sounds. Ellis added bulging sci fi synth lines and shivering piano commentaries played on an old upright that sounded as though it had been knocked about a little over the years. The insinuations of honky tonk and the squeak of the pedals only added to the surreal quality of the atmosphere.

The Neo-Gothic splendour of Manchester’s town hall was an inspired choice of setting and an animated backdrop by Antony Barkworth-Knight, full of arresting visuals, was the perfect complement to the music. There were shots of water that ran as thick as oil, muted colours bleeding into one another, stylised flocks of birds and a roving eye. Best of all were a series of hands over which the camera lingered, searching the contours of the palm and the topography of the knuckles, finding beauty in the mundane.

St Anne’s church, the setting for a graceful and wonderfully fluid duo performance from Salford-born guitarist Mike Walker and Chetham’s alumnus Gwilym Simcock (below), was similarly well chosen – particularly as the pair opened with an extract from Bach’s St Matthew Passion. As was the Central Library’s circular reading room, its domed ceiling reverberating with the lilting melodies of trumpeter Neil Yates’ whisper soft Surroundings suite, originally commissioned in 2010 and pared down for a quartet completed by saxophonists Iain Ballamy and Tori Freestone with pianist Les Chisnall.

Walker Sym

\As well as demonstrating just how many of the British jazz establishment have ties to the North West, MJF does an excellent job of promoting lesser known acts from the region and there were a host of promising newcomers rubbing shoulders with the local boys and girls done good. The easy-going grooves and swaggering basslines of Afrika Jazz, a trio led by Congolese pianist and Birmingham Conservatoire student Tshepe Tshepela, ensured a laid back start to Friday’s programme and a performance from the Quarry Hillbillies proved an unexpected highlight. See a name like that and you fear the worst but don’t let it put you off. So called because they all teach at Leeds College of Music in Quarry Hill, the quintet take their playing seriously. Their set of contemporary, European jazz originals in the tradition of Kenny Wheeler and John Taylor was flawlessly polished, with plenty of inspiring improvised moments played out across merry-go-round chord sequences – the kind that swing you back to the top and feel like a dream to solo over. Once you’re on you never want to get off.

Drummer Jim Molyneux’s horn-heavy, Snarky Puppy-esque Glowrogues were another exciting discovery and a set of grungy, EWI-led jazz prog from young Leeds band, Stretch Trio (pictured top of page) was equally strong. Both groups would benefit from tightening up a few of their compositions, distilling them down to their essentials, but both have bags of promise and Glowrogues in particular have some killer hooks – choruses that make you want to throw your head back and shout “Choon!” They were on stage again for the festival’s after party at Northern Quartet club Band on the Wall, where they shared the bill with Kalakuta, a group of RNCM students and alumni whose set of high energy Afro Beat was similarly outstanding.

Walking back along Tib Street and through the city centre that night, past boarded-up boozers and livelier ones done out in red brick and glazed tile, I was in no doubt that I’d seen Manchester at its best and it hardly seemed to matter that the weekend’s overseas guests hadn’t lived up to their billings. Homegrown talent provided all of the fireworks this superb twentieth anniversary celebration needed.

– Thomas Rees @ThomasNRees

– Photos by Weiting Huang and Peter Woodman

brad-mehldau-10-years-solo-live-450sqCelebrated and influential US pianist Brad Mehldau is set to release a huge 8-LP vinyl box set, 10 Years Solo Live, comprising of live solo piano performances drawn from the last decade, on Nonesuch Records on 16 October. Compiled from 19 performances in the last decade from his European solo concerts, the music has been sequenced in four thematic ‘subsets’: Dark/Light, The Concert, Intermezzo/Rückblick and E Minor/E Major. Mehldau explains the music in the album’s liner notes: “Although it totals around 300 minutes, the order of songs is not arbitrary, and I have tried to tell a story from beginning to end in the way I’ve sequenced it. There is a theme and character given to each four-side set.”

The Dark/Light theme explores versions of Jeff Buckley's ‘Dream Brother’, which is followed by Lennon/McCartney’s ‘Blackbird’, while Mehldau comments further on the third set: “I’m thinking of the penultimate movement of Brahms’s ‘Third Piano Sonata’. ‘Rückblick’ means a look backward, perhaps a reappraisal. Brahms’s Intermezzo movement was a look back at what had taken place in his Sonata before moving to the final movement. Here, the listener is invited to look back to music that was recorded 10 or more years ago, in 2004 and 2005.” The pianist also says the point of the fourth set “is to focus on the rub between the keys of E minor and E major. I return to the theme of dark and light from the first set, now allowing the listener to focus on how ‘dark’ and ‘light’ might manifest in tonality.”

Mehldau is set to visit the UK in December for two concerts at the Wigmore Hall – the first on 17 December will feature selections of his own pieces and a specially commissioned work, the second on 18 December, will be an evening of solo piano improvisations.

– Mike Flynn

For more info on the Nonesuch box set visit www.nonesuch.com

Renowned Armenian-born LA-based pianist Tigran Hamasyan is set to release his debut album for the ECM label, Luys i Luso (Light from the Light), on 4 September which features solo piano alongside the Yerevan State Chamber Choir in a deep exploration of Armenian sacred music. The project has been planned for the past two years and sees Hamasyan take sacred Armenian hymns, sharakans and cantos from the 5th to the 20th century and create new arrangements for the choir, and as vehicles for him to also improvise on. The music includes chants by saints such as Mesrop Mashtots, the 5th century saint, composer and linguist alongside Nerses Shnorhali, Grigor Narekatsi, Grigor Pahlavuni, Mkhitar Ayrivanetsi and Komitas. The album was recorded in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, last October, and produced by Manfred Eicher.

The recording comes in stark contrast to Tigran’s recent distinctly electronic and fusion influenced albums Mockroot (Nonesuch)and Shadow Theater (Verve), but is something of a continuation of his 2011 solo piano album A Fable (Verve), which featured compelling contemporary takes on traditional Armenian music.
Luys i Lusowill be followed by another for ECM in 2016, which will feature improvisations around Armenian themes, with Tigran joined by revered Norwegian musicians trumpeter Arve Henriksen, guitarist Eivind Aarset and electronics maestro Jan Bang.

Live performances of the music from
Luys i Luso began in March this year as part of a 60-date tour of churches in Georgia, Turkey, Lebanon, France, Belgium, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Germany, Luxembourg, Russia and the United States. Tigran and eight members of the Yerevan State Chamber Choir will be performing three dates in the England and Ireland at the following venues: Union Chapel, Islington, London (15 October); Howard Assembly Room, Leeds (16 October) and Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin (17 October).

– Mike Flynn


For more info visit http://www.luysiluso.com

Jon Cleary, the UK-born, New Orleans-based keyboardist, vocalist and songwriter, makes his return to his native land this month, bringing his trio the Absolute Monster Gentlemen to play at Manchester’s Band on the Wall (20 August, 7.30pm), and four shows over two nights at Ronnie Scott’s (21 & 22 August, 6pm/10.30pm). Growing up in rural Kent before moving to New Orleans whilst still a teenager, Cleary quickly established himself on the local scene and now lists John Scofield, Dr. John and Taj Mahal among those he has worked with, alongside a 10-year period performing and co-writing withBonnie Raitt.

Cleary and his band will perform material from the new album Gogo Juice, Cleary’s sixth album as leader, due for release on 14 August and made up entirely of his original compositions, demonstrating influences of New Orleans R’n’B, ‘70s soul, funk, gospel and Afro-Caribbeanmusic. Among those featured are Cleary himself on piano and vocals, Grammy award-winning producer John Porter, the horn arranging talents of Allen Toussaint and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen, praised by Rolling Stone as “broad, deep and roiling as the Mississippi River.”


– Ed Rice

For more info and tickets visit www.joncleary.com

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