For more than 90 minutes, with nothing but his trusty Gibson, a mic and an amp for company, James ‘Blood’ Ulmer held a packed Café OTO crowd in rapt attention. The great man – now 75, but scarcely changed since he first came to wide UK attention back in 1980 with the Are You Glad to be in America? album (although Ornette Coleman fans would have been aware of Ulmer as the late sax titan’s first electric guitarist back in the 1970s and as a member of Art Blakey’s band) – was in relaxed mood, but his guitar playing was anything but: jagged, inventive, polyphonic and full of those stinging lines for which he has become justly renowned.

Like the great Johnny Guitar Watson, Ulmer plays with his thumb and fingers rather than a plectrum, and the funk, as it were, is transmitted from the soul straight to the strings. But Ulmer is most definitely a bluesman – perhaps the last in the line of a type of player best exemplified by John Lee Hooker. Although it often verges on the inaudible, his ragged, soulful singing has the plaintive quality of the old country bluesmen – an echo of ancient cry from the plantations of the 19th century in the 21st. His ability to transform an overly familiar standard like ‘Rock Me Baby’ into something both fresh and exciting owes as much to his voice as it does to his avant-jazz playing.

On a couple of instrumental pieces, he created textures and dissonances reminiscent of Ornette as well as his biggest influence, Hendrix. The guitarist has come under fire in recent years for moving away from the freer music he played in the 1970s and 80s, but on the evidence of this show he is still a questing player, even if his music is more structured and conventionally rhythmic than it once was.

This audience, certainly, was impressed. The huge stack of CDs he bought with him sold out in minutes.

– Kevin Whitlock

An endearingly boyish beginning: our heroes walking backwards across the stage, hinting perhaps at a nostalgia for breakdance glory. Which is arguably more relevant to Herbie Hancock’s hip-hop forays than Chick Corea’s Elektric bands but it sets a playful tone for a performance that is big on both humour and adventure. Devotees of the 1970s acoustic duets of these icons who debuted in the 1960s will have been intrigued to see keyboards and samplers beside the two grand pianos, face to face like stretch limos set to rev up on ideas rather than gas.    

Hence from the moment Hancock triggers cheeky garbles and grunts from his workstation it is clear that his and Corea’s backstory as fusion pioneers is as much part of tonight’s programme as their status as pianists who uphold Tatum, Powell and Evans with sufficient verve and imagination to secure a place in the jazz pantheon. This kind of meeting can only really work if the dialogue is balanced and for the most part the exchanges are finely weighted, perhaps with Corea giving more solo space to Hancock. Yet the entwining of their improvisations on a rendition of ‘Maiden Voyage’, in which the pulse and harmony become wonderfully tangential, reveals two minds on the same wavelength, as do a series of spontaneous compositions in which rhythmic strength and textural invention come brilliantly into play.

HancockCoreaHancockCorea MG 6616

We hear Corea tapping out a marimba-style beat on his synthesizer before swiveling to the piano to execute those distinctively flute-like trills that made Return To Forever so poetic, and Hancock laying down the enticingly bluesy progressions that betray his origins in hard bop before leavening them with a barrage of high-pitched motifs from his keyboard. Latin and classical sensibilities bind both men, but the rich individual personalities ensure that the ideas pitched from each Steinway are anything but generic. The anthems pulled out for two rapturous encores make that point in no uncertain terms. First up is Hancock’s ‘Cantaloupe Island’, a slick boogaloo that resists contempt despite the huge familiarity acquired through its recycling in Blue Note’s hit parade.

The beat is given an additional trickery by Corea’s wily syncopations and the rolling bass thickens up when the two men attack it together, prompting mass head nodding around the whole auditorium. Then comes Corea’s ‘Spain’, which marks a stark contrast. It’s all flourish, Arabesque intricacy and long lyrical lines, and, quite puckishly, he opts for an extended prelude, reminding us by way of one concise lament after another that the piece is the Miles, or rather, the Miles & Gil moment to complement an earlier breeze through ‘Solar.’ As the complex harmony is unpacked the orchestral sub-text of the composition becomes explicit and the two men go straight into a long solo before finally moving to the head. The tempo drops a touch and the soaring, bird-in-flight nature of the theme stands as its own concerto. They play the line just the once. That is all that is needed.

– Kevin Le Gendre

– Photos by Roger Thomas

Peter Bacon spoke to renowned British jazz trumpeter Henry Lowther ahead of his appearance the inaugural JQJAZZ15 jazz festival that takes place in Birmingham from the 17 to 19 July

Trumpeter Henry Lowther is remembering when he met that other trumpeter, Miles Davis: “I was introduced to Miles Davis in 1969 by Dave Holland, the Wolverhampton-born bass player who was in Miles’s band at the time. I was in Los Angeles on an American tour with the Keef Hartley Band, a rock band, and we were playing a week in the most trendy rock club in L.A. in those days, the Whisky A Go-Go.

“At the end of that week Miles commenced a week at Shelly’s Manne Hole, a jazz club in Hollywood, and so I went there to hear Miles’s band. Dave introduced me to Miles as a trumpet player from England and despite Miles’s reputation as a hostile and difficult person he was warm and friendly to me and in fact showed some interest in what I was doing. This was undoubtedly because my band was playing to about a thousand people nightly and he was only playing to 50 or so – I’m sure he would rather have been playing the Whisky A Go-Go.”

Miles Davis is the chief subject of the JQJAZZ15 Legends Festival, a three-day weekend celebration in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter (17-19 July) focussing not only on Davis himself and his legacy, but also on some of his contemporaries and associates from what was a golden age in modern jazz. Musicians like Cannonball Adderley, Charles Mingus and Clark Terry.

Henry is the guest curator of the festival, which is being organised by Birmingham Jazz. He will be leading his band Still Waters on the opening Friday night, and talking about Miles Davis in a Sunday lunchtime event called He Also Plays Trumpet. Was Davis an influence on his trumpet playing? “Miles was undoubtedly an early influence on my playing but Miles’s playing is inimitable and nobody on a trumpet can ever sound like him.

“Gil Evans once said that Miles was that rare thing, ‘a sound innovator. He changed the sound of the trumpet.’ I think the biggest influence Miles may have had on my playing is just that he showed me that the most important thing is to try to make your technique invisible. I haven’t managed that yet!”

The JQJAZZ15 Legends Festival takes place in various Jewellery Quarter locations on July 17-19, and is supported by University College Birmingham and Jewellery Quarter Bid, among others.

Friday July 17

1.30pm Toby Boalch Trio, Pomegranate, Free

5pm Little Church - Electric Miles led by David Austin-Grey, University College Birmingham, £8/£5Members/£5 Students

8pm Still Waters - Henry Lowther's own band, The Red Lion, £12/£10/£5

Saturday July 18

10.30am Jazz Breakfast - Mark Pringle Quartet, The Red Lion, Free

1.30pm Birth of the Cool - Jim Wynn Nonet, Saint Kitchen, Free

3pm Clark Terry Tribute - Sean Gibbs Quartet, University College Birmingham, Free

5pm Cannonball Adderley Tribute - Chris Gumbley Quintet, The Red Lion, £12/£10/£5

8pm Mingus Profiles Sextet - Chris Biscoe/Tony Kofi and a host of stars, The Red Lion, £12/£10/£5

Sunday July 19

10.30am Jazz Breakfast - Gareth Fowler Duo, The Red Lion, Free

1.30pm He Also Plays Trumpet - Henry Lowther on Miles, The Red Lion, Free

3pm Standard Miles - Simon Spillett-led Quintet, The Red Lion, £12/£10/£5

5pm Corbett & Co - Bryan Corbett & Chris Bowden, The Red Lion, £12/£10/£5

8pm Kofi/Barnes Aggregation - The finale with an all-star line up led by Tony Kofi and Alan Barnes, Blue Orange Theatre, £15/£10/£5

10.30pm JQ Jam Session - The Festival moves over to the Brown Lion for a wind down! The Brown Lion, Free

There is also an exhibition of John Watson’s Jazz Camera photographs at Urban Coffee, Jewellery Quarter, up now and for the duration of the festival.

For full details and tickets go to www.birminghamjazz.co.uk

With the surrounding South Downs at their most beautiful in the early evening sunlight, and a crowd of 20,000 blending races, ages and genders like little seen before in this corner of England as they enjoy sometimes great jazz and soul, Love Supreme seems like a utopia. Its Saturday night belongs to Blue Note, and especially Ambrose Akinmusire (top), whose performance equals the label’s classic era. A twenty-minute opening of furious intensity sees him stepping periodically and tellingly into the heart of his quartet’s storm. On ‘Regret No More’, his trumpet astonishingly resembles the human voice in all its variety, harsh and plaintive cries ending in a long, pure, almost impossible wailing note. His technique is extraordinary, but serves densely purposeful, emotional music.

partisans

As he finishes in the Big Top, Blue Note’s star British signing GoGo Penguin are packing out The Arena. The piano trio have a light, fleet touch, adding to their command of dance music dynamics – a very particular, popular, streamlined sound which will need expanding soon. Other British acts here include Get The Blessing who often seem more playfully cerebral than the intensely potent Akinmusire. Partisans, though, are all rocketing attack, and Dylan Howe’s Subterraneans let the melancholy of Bowie and Eno’s ‘Warszawa’ slowly soarover back-projected, Cold War Berlin street scenes.

Ginger Baker
, meanwhile, plays through the pain of a rapidly deteriorating body, and shows his old bullying bad temper to an unfortunate young roadie. His still weighty playing is usefully slower than in his monstrous prime, and at first not always attuned to percussionist Abass Dodoo. But on ‘Ginger Spice’ they finally, beautifully lock in behind Pee Wee Ellis’ sinuous sax. The crowd ramming the Big Top start swaying, and a thunderously assertive Baker solo rides their energy. He has to leave the stage after that, but returns for a majestic, moving finish, his sickness falling from him as he flies.

hughmsekela

Hugh Masekela’s 76 years have treated him more kindly, and the Big Top is packed and dancing for him too, numbers barely dented by Van Morrison’s perfunctory Main Stage set. Masekela’s apartheid oppressors are dead or disgraced, but he is still riding his freedom train, combining spoken-word protest with hilarious good humour and his rationed but still blazing trumpet. God bless him, I think, as he strives for a more permanent utopia than Love Supreme’s blissful weekend.

– Nick Hasted

– Photos by Roger Thomas

The Gary Crosby Quartet will mark the 50th anniversary of John Coltrane’s only live performance of his classic album, A Love Supreme, when they perform thepiece at the Front Room at Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall on Friday 10 July. 

Alongside Gary Crosby, one of the founders of the Jazz Warriors, will be Mercury Music Prize nominated saxophonist Denys Baptiste, pianist Joe Arman-Jones and drummer Rod Youngs. A Love Supreme was released on Impulse! Records in 1965 and the landmark work was only played once in full in Antibes on July 26, 1965. A recording of this concert originally came out as a bootleg but became officially available as a part of the A Love Supreme Deluxe Edition released by Universal/Impulse! in 2002.

The Gary Crosby Quartet will perform this free entry concert at the large Front Room space, which is in the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre at 5.30pm on 10 July.

– Frederick Hoareau

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