Acclaimed pianist Keith Jarrett is set to celebrate his 70th birthday on 8 May with the release of two new albums on his longtime label ECM. The first is a live solo piano album, entitled Creation, which will be released on 11 May, and features highlights from 2014 concert performances in Japan, Canada and Europe. Rather than focusing on a single-evening’s improvisational process, Creation instead comprises of the musical highpoints of concerts in Tokyo, Toronto, Paris and Rome.

This album will be accompanied by the simultaneous release of a newly issued archival classical piano recording, Samuel Barber/Béla Bartók, from 1984 featuring Jarrett, the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbrücken orchestra conducted by Dennis Russell Davies and the New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Kazuyoshi Akiyama. The latter concert saw Jarrett return alone to the stage of the Kan-I Hoken Hall to play an improvised encore that is also featured on the album, which additionally includes liner notes by Keith Jarrett and Paul Griffiths.

Another ECM artist marking a significant personal milestone is Jarrett’s longstanding bassist Gary Peacock as he turns 80 on 12 May and also releases a trio album, Now This, the day before. Featuring pianist Marc Copland and drummer Joey Baron, the album was recorded last summer in Oslo and features new versions of Peacock compositions such as ‘Moor’, ‘Vignette’, ‘Requiem’ and ‘Gaya’ alongside new material, plus pieces by Copland and Baron and a version of Scott LaFaro’s ‘Gloria’s Step’.

Heading up this strong tranche of releases is a new album from influential New York saxophonist Tim Berne and his acclaimed ‘chamber jazz’ band Snakeoil, with You’ve Been Watching Me, released on 27 April. The core line-up of clarinettist Oscar Noriega, pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Ches Smith are joined by new member, electric/acoustic guitarist Ray Ferreira, who adds atmospheric sounds and spiky interjections.

– Mike Flynn

For more info www.ecmrecords.com

Spring has sprung and Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club has announced a hot line-up of British and international jazz heavyweights set to appear throughout April and May and into the summer. First among a blaze of fiery fusioneers is virtuosic guitarist Oz Noy who appears with his hard-hitting power trio of drummer Gary Novak and bassist Etienne Mbappe (the latter a member of John McLaughlin’s acclaimed 4th Dimension band) who all appear tomorrow night (14 April). Unusually this will be followed by a late set from the kicking Chicago 10-piece Hypnotic Brass Ensemble who perform their infectious blend of brass-led hip-hop and jazz influenced music – doors open at 10.30pm.

Popular US jazz-fusion guitar hero Mike Stern, whose illustrious CV of course includes working alongside greats such as Miles Davis, Jaco Pastorius and Billy Cobham and countless others, brings his new quartet to the club for three nights 16-17 April. The band includes rising bass guitar star Janek Gwizdala, alongside trumpet luminary Randy Brecker and acclaimed drummer Steve Smith, all combining on Stern’s blues-infused originals. On Saturday 18 April Russian pianist Yelena Eckemoff will play an opening set before Stern, with a great trio featuring top Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen and UK drummer Martin France. Revered vocalist Diane Schuur returns to the club on 20-21 April to perform her distinctive take on the Great American songbook while modern day sax colossus James Carter storms back to the Ronnie’s stage with his Organ Trio, featuring B3 man Gerard Gibbs and drummer Elmar Frey (22-23 April). 

Brit-jazz pianist Neil Cowley then pays tribute to the music and humour of iconic comedian and jazz musician Dudley Moore over two nights (24-25 April), to mark what would have been Moore’s 80th birthday as well as celebrate the 50th anniversary of what is considered his hippest jazz recording, The Other Side of Dudley Moore, which showcased his virtuosic skills as a top-level jazz musician. For these dates Cowley will be joined by bassist Geoff Gascoyne and drummer Sebastiaan De Krom on a set featuring standards, originals, Moore anecdotes and Cowley’s own very British sense of humour.

US drum icon Dave Weckl appears with his Acoustic Band (27-28 April) featuring great Japanese pianist Makoto Ozone, while sax giant Joe Lovano brings his hard-grooving Village Rhythms Band to the club (and the UK) for the first time (30 April-1 May) before headlining on the Saturday night at Cheltenham Jazz Festival. US-based British bassist Dave Holland follows this for one night with his brilliant jazz-rock Prism band (2 May) whose stellar line-up of pianist Craig Taborn, guitarist Kevin Eubanks and drummer Eric Harland (still TBC for this date). Further top-notch American jazz stars appearing include two nights from leading trumpeter Dave Douglas with ionic saxophonist Lee Konitz (3-4 May), jazz vocal star Jane Monheit (7-8 May), bebop guitar virtuoso Pat Martino with his Trio (11-12 May), cult bassist/singer Meshell Ndegeocello (13-14 May), and Grammy-winning soul-jazz diva Lalah Hathaway, who performs four shows over two nights (15-16 May). Blue Note-signed singer José James’ one night singing the songs of Billie Holiday has already sold out (19 May) and is followed by bassist Kyle Eastwood and his fine UK-based band all playing music from his new Timepieces album (20-23 May). The month closes out with another week-long residency from soul-jazz singer Marlena Shaw (25-30 May).

Another notable appearance in both May and June will be saxophonist Seun Kuti (son of the legendary Afrobeat king Fela Kuti), who brings his father’s storming Egypt 80 band to the club on both 9 May and on 12-13 June. This month also sees performances by rising US singer Cécile McLorin Salvant (2-3 June), pianist Jacky Terrason (4-5 June), Byron Wallen/Jean Toussaint’s Roots and Herbs Art Blakey Project (6 June), Hammond Eggs with Randy Brecker and Bob Mintzer (20 June) and a week’s residency from singer/saxophonist Curtis Stigers (22-27 June). While July sees Snarky Puppy bassist Michael League appear with his funky four-piece FORQ (5 July), soul-funk diva Chaka Khan (6, 7 and 9 July) and the launch of barnstorming Brit-jazz big band Beats & Pieces new album, All In, on 8 July.

– Mike Flynn

For full listings and tickets go to www.ronniescotts.co.uk

TD-Necks-02

‘The UK’s biggest jazz festival held under one roof’; it’s a phrase that crops up time and time again over the course of this weekend, but it’s missing the point. The real story here is the roof itself. With its billowing glass curves and panoramic views over the River Tyne, it’s hard to imagine a more beautiful setting for a festival than the Sage Gateshead. Then there’s the programme. The biggest under one roof? Perhaps, but cleverly worked too, with a sprinkling of mainstream crowd pleasers (David Sanborn, James Taylor, Ruby Turner) along with plenty for jazz purists to get their teeth into.

John Scofield and Kent-born New Orleans-based pianist Jon Cleary kicked things off on Friday night with a pleasing set of Crescent City stomps and bluesy shuffles; though the guitar-great seemed a little out of sorts, crowding Cleary’s vocals with an excess of noodling. By contrast a 50th anniversary performance of Brit jazz classic Under Milk Wood, with drummer Clark Tracey, quietly-spoken sax man Bobby Wellins and narrator Ben Tracey was as tender and poetic as the Dylan Thomas lyric.

Rising star vocalist/pianist Jarrod Lawson and his ultra-tight band, The Good People, grabbed the late set by the scruff of the neck, dropping hits from Lawson’s self titled 2014 debut, along with several new compositions. ‘Together We’ll Stand’, a deeply groovy finisher with a knotty bass and guitar riff had the funk-drunk audience swaying on their feet.

In a well-judged change of pace, day two was heavier on acoustic jazz. Gwilym Simcock and the Royal Northern Sinfonia brought the house down with Move!, a jigsaw puzzle of fragmented melodies and industrial soundscapes. Yet on balance, I preferred the first half trio set which gave the pianist’s intoxicating harmonic language the space it deserved; flaunted his telepathic connection with drummer Martin France and brought the best out of Yuri Goloubev, whose arco bass feature on ‘A Joy Forever’ was achingly beautiful.

TD-Joshua-Redman-17

Later that night Australian trio The Necks (pictured top) slowed the pace to glacial, unfolding soundscapes of their own amidst a dazzling light show. But the undoubted highlight was a set from saxophone colossus Joshua Redman and his trio (above), featuring bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Gregory Hutchinson. There was a thrilling elasticity to their renditions of standards and originals from Trios Live (testament to years spent together on the road) and Redman played with matchless variety, juxtaposing gritty funk-addled riffs with willowy soprano melodies of jaw-dropping, face-scrunching virtuosity.

TD-Cookers-10

There was plenty more virtuosity to come on day three when hard bop supergroup, The Cookers (above), blasted their way through an afternoon set that brought the spirit of Art Blakey to Tyneside. Standout contributions came from tenorist Billy Harper and Donald Harrison dep Jaleel Shaw on alto, who ripped up Hubbard classic ‘The Core’, his knees buckling with the effort. ‘Farewell Mulgrew’, a tribute to Mulgrew Miller with a fiery latin groove at its heart, by pianist George Cables, was a further highlight.

TD-Loose-Tubes-08

Last of all came a jubilant performance from the recently reincarnated Loose Tubes (above), who played their hearts out on 30-year-old classics and some gloriously scatterbrained new commissions. But the Sage Gateshead’s Hall One did them no favours. The eccentric energy of the band, capped by Ashley’s Slater’s wickedly humorous commentary, felt out of place in a cavernous concert hall. Had they been crammed onto a smaller stage they would have packed a bigger punch – big enough, no doubt, to lift the Sage Gateshead’s pretty glass roof right off.

– Thomas Rees @ThomasNRees

– Photos by Tim Dickeson

Billie-Holiday-008

When Stuart Nicholson’s biography of Billie Holiday was published in the USA it was nominated a "Notable Book of the Year" by The New York Times Review of Books and praised by Pulitzer Prize winner for Music, composer Ned Norem, for its musical insights. Here, prompted by the release of Verve’s Billie Holiday: The Complete Verve Studio Master Takes, Nicholson reflects on the enduring artistry of the singer they called Lady Day, talks about how he discovered some of the previously unknown facts he discovered researching her life and discusses the sensational conclusion he came to after his book was published.

The polarities of art and life, once carefully separated by T. S. Eliot and the New Critics, collided with such violence during the 44 years of singer Billie Holiday’s life they became bonded into one immutable whole. Together they give force to the Billie Holiday legend, a legend that has grown with increasing definition since her death in 1959. Although a sense of sadness and waste provide the backdrop for her troubled yet colourful life, that life is ultimately redeemed by the joy, the passion and, in her final years, the pathos of her music.

Yet standing back from this simmering life engaged to disaster, it is impossible not to reflect that it is not so much what happens to us, as how we handle what happens us, that decides our fortune. Billie’s great rival, Ella Fitzgerald, had to endure a family background and social conditions not greatly different from Holiday’s; two years younger, Fitzgerald was almost certainly sexually abused as a child – as was Holiday – and both hung around whorehouses in early adolescence. Each was the product of a broken home, each suffered years of poverty and each stared racism square in the face in 1930s, 1940s and 1950s apartheid America. Yet Fitzgerald worked her way to Beverly Hills luxury and was still singing into the 1990s, while Holiday, who was never able to come to terms with her personal demons, died in poverty in 1959.

From her early teens Billie Holiday associated marijuana and alcohol with good times. As a young woman she lived it up with a vengeance. Yet she found it within herself to create a series of enduring jazz classics during the 1930s in the company of pianist Teddy Wilson and some of the finest jazz musicians of the day for the Brunswick label including, ‘I Wished on the Moon,’ ‘What a Little Moonlight Can Do,’ ‘I Cried for You’ and ‘This Years Kisses.’ 

Both with Teddy Wilson and under her own name for the Vocalion label she also created a series of recordings with Lester Young on tenor saxophone that see a degree of mutual inspiration that epitomizes jazz at its highest level of creativity - ‘Sun Showers,’ ‘I’ll Get By,’ ‘Me Myself and I,’ ‘A Sailboat in the Moonlight,’ ‘He’s Funny That Way,’ ‘When You’re Smiling,’ ‘Back In Your Own Backyard’ and ‘All of Me.’ These recordings, together with the Brunswick recordings with Wilson, available on Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933-1944, reveal a singer of broad emotional range able to narrow her focus at will, able to seize the pressure points of a song to reshape it so profoundly that once heard, it goes on to enjoy a second life, a life within memory; indeed many songs from this period are truly unforgettable.

- Stuart Nicholson

It’s a long way from the Mojave Desert to Shoreditch, where Polar Bear launched their latest album, Same As You, at the Village Underground on Wednesday 8 April. In a first for the veteran post-jazz pioneers, the album was mixed by Seb Rochford and LA producer Ken Barrientos at a studio in the southern Californian wilds. The result was a more ambient, spacious sound, blending Leafcutter John’s electronic beats with Rochford’s attractively laid-back dub rhythms, a more subdued role for the spiky sax duo of Pete Wareham and Mark Lockheart, and several passages of singing – a Polar Bear first – adding warmth.

At its live launch, they played the album straight through, drawing easy comparisons with the disc. ‘Life, Love and Light’, the dramatic opening narration of life-affirming lyrics by Asar Mikael (below), owner of Jamaican cultural institution The Light Shop, was stunning. Dressed head-to-toe in white, with a bolt of spotlighting from the Village Underground’s cavernous heights, Mikael embodied the hopeful spirit of his words.

PB0VU2

For the remaining, mainly instrumental tracks, the balance was noticeably different from the album; with the saxes more prominent live, burying Rochford’s beautifully textured percussion in their twining, shiny brass sounds. ‘Of Hi Lands’, which on the recording is a mesmeric weave of Leafcutter John and Seb Rochford, was a noisier, less subtle experience live, though the end of ‘First Steps’, fading to white noise, had a lovely, chilly Arctic feel.    

‘Don’t Let the Feeling Go’ includes a chorus of Rochford, Hannah Darling and a choir of friends on the album; live, it was Wareham and Lockheart accompanying Rochford, with a sound that was more sporting than spiritual. Always a phenomenon in performance, Polar Bear staged a theatrical coup with Asar Mikael, but the rest of the album couldn’t help sounding a little bit less special than on disc.

– Matt Wright (story and photos)

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