Stuff chop-up Cronenberg, Downes and Challenger get organic and Esinam goes Afro-futurist at Flagey

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As the 10-day Brussels Jazz Festival progressed into its second phase, there were sets to excite devotees of both Heavenly and Hellish imagery. One of the hottest Belgian combos in recent years is Stuff (above), but your reviewer was not grabbed by his first encounter with the band in 2015. It seems that this five-piece can manifest in various shapes, so their ‘festival special’ involved the music of mega-prolific movie soundtracker Howard Shore. Excitingly, Stuff homed in solely on his prodigious output for body transformation fetishist David Cronenberg, immediately coercing the players into an atmospheric mode, yanked away from their customary power-funk. The keyboards of Joris Caluwaerts were prominent in the soundscaping, even though the other Stuffers were constantly beavering away: saxophonist Andrew Claes finding his space during The Naked Lunch section, this score a Shore collaboration with Ornette Coleman.

It was an orgy of extreme imagery, as the video-slashing duo of Bart Moens and Frederik Jassogne distributed their splices across four vertical screens, observing a grisly fascination with Cronenberg’s money shots, striking fresh relationships by cutting two or more scenes together, thereby intensifying the hardcore flesh-reddening content. The Brood, Videodrome, The Fly, Dead Ringers and, most teeth-gritting-ly, Eastern Promises flashed by their most heightened imagery. Stuff melded all, turning the contents into a new work, an absolute homage to the mighty Cronenberg. The music often sounded surprisingly tranquil and/or romantic, cultivating an uneasy contrast with the churning imagery. At times, the sonics became a background, but that’s the functional expectation of an expert journey into soundtracking oblivion. Called back for an encore, the band refused, leaving us with a head-expanding multi-screen clip from Scanners, the perfect end to a concert. This was the hard Stuff!

Across the Heaven side of the twinned Flagey lakes, the only gig taking place away from that central location was the English duo of Kit Downes and Tom Challenger, at the nearby Abbaye Church of La Cambre. Downes sat at its high organ, but a distinct disadvantage was that we couldn’t see him in action, apart from his nodding head-shadow. Also, the organ pipes didn’t seem as powerful as those heard during his church gig at Jazzfest Berlin in 2017. In spite of this, he still pushed them to the limit, issuing sounds that you’d never usually hear in a church. Challenger was left to play saxophone on the balcony, seeming lonesome, even though we knew Downes was close by, as Challenger’s horn cried out to the rafters, finding a strangely vocal reverberance, turning tonal tricks in marriage with the organ. This was an impressive event, but the music eventually drifted off, perhaps because it wasn’t anchored by any visual changes.

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Back at the late night Flagey foyer stage, the local Brussels multi-instrumentalist Esinam (above) demonstrated why she’s been travelling up a fast curve of recognition in recent times. She plays solo, but speedily crafts dense layers of looped percussion, keyboard figures and her own backing vocals, laying down flute parts, then soloing across this foundation. Esinam uses Brazilian pandeiro drum, tama talking drum and mbira thumb piano, as well as the occasional vocal, notably on the numbers from her eponymously titled debut EP. The zone is Afro-electro, and adventurous-with-tunes, the entire show dependent on her lightning triggering of stacked parts, a loop juggler, confidently grooved while being quirkily futuristic.

– Martin Longley

 – Photos by Olivier Lestoquoit

Tony Kofi Quintet Hop On A Cannonball Run At Riverhouse Barn Arts Centre

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It was Alan Barnes who once said, "Dead names sell seats", but it would be quite wrong to ascribe such base motives to 'A Portrait Of Cannonball'. Pianist Alex Webb is its instigator and the success of this fusion of narrative and performance owes much to his selection of pieces to play and milestones to mention, but most of all to Tony Kofi and his group who approached the material here with the kind of full-on gusto that Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley himself would have loved.

Kofi’s presentation has already garnered all sorts of appreciation on its various nationwide appearances and looks set to continue, and why not for the set-up is great and the music quite splendid. Sticking to alto throughout, Kofi doesn’t seek to replicate the late Cannonball’s exact sound or style, but instead brings his own searing intensity and positive complexity to every solo he plays. He speaks too, alternating snatches of Adderley’s life story with Webb, each song properly placed in Cannon’s canon, so to speak, thus the gutsy ‘Bohemia After Dark’ referencing Adderley’s chance visit to Café Bohemia in New York, this the springboard for his adoption by the New York jazz cognoscenti. Kofi led this off with a passionate, fast-moving exploration, urged by Andy Cleyndert’s vibrant basslines and the cleverly intricate drumming of Alfonso Vitale and Webb’s piano prompting. Good, too, to cite trumpeter Andy Davies’s participation here, for this young player is keen to impress and brings a thoughtful consideration to his solos, hot and centred, the ideas on the boil, his ensemble linkages with Kofi quite perfect.

The Riverhouse Barn in Walton-on-Thames is just that, a converted half-timbered period building by the Thames, spacious, the bandstand at its centre, contemporary jazz a monthly feature, Kofi having attracted a decent, near-capacity audience who warmed to his personable manner immediately, while reserving the louder part of their applause for singer Deelee Dubé’s recall of Nancy Wilson’s collaboration with Adderley. In truth, her voice is lustier than the late Ms Wilson’s with rather more of a gospel feel, but she’s a crowd-pleaser with serious vocal capabilities, stretching the lyrics on ‘Never Will I Marry’, ‘A Sleepin’ Bee’, ‘Happy Talk’ and the rest in invigorating fashion. Victor Feldman’s ‘Azule Serape’ was a highlight, its theme enabling Kofi to insert a quote or two while bearing down strongly on the beat, with Davies pulling out all the stops; Duke Pearson’s ‘Jeannine’ and ‘Unit Seven’ by Sam Jones later eliciting the kind of ensemble groove that seems like hard-bop heaven. Take that as a capsule description for the entire concert. 

Story and photo by Peter Vacher 

Mo Foster & Friends make moves at Half Moon, Putney

A Wednesday in early January is never likely to entice the largest audience to an evening of live jazz, but there was a good turnout on the 9th at the Half Moon in Putney to be treated to the classiest playing from six of the UK's top musicians in the shape of Mo Foster & Friends. After a long career being a trusted "hired hand" providing solid, sophisticated bass on-stage and instudio for artists such as Jeff Beck, Phil Collins, Eric Clapton, Sting, Van Morrison and Joan Armatrading, Foster has achieved a long-lasting ambition of putting together his "dream team" of players performing music of his choice, and it's a perfect combination.

The inspiration comes from Foster's experiences with Gil Evans in the 1980s, and the new project aims to resurrect that sound with a smaller footprint. It works beautifully. The improvisational skills of Ray Russell on guitar, Chris Biscoe on reeds and Jim Watson on keyboards lead the way. These dazzling performers move the music through exhilarating textures and dynamics, pulling the sound in fresh directions while maintaining a masterly coherence. It's rare when enjoying a live solo improv to be caught suddenly by a "what on Earth was that!" uplift as the other player produces something so rhythmically or harmonically unexpected and complimentary that it raises the experience to another level entirely. Far from being distractions from the soloist’s spot, these delicious combinations amplify and enrich the result. Chris Biscoe’s playing produced a number of these extraordinary moments. What he can do with an alto clarinet or a soprano sax simply amazes.

Overall, the way the members of this group take their cues from each other and adapt the collective sound to the moment, while keeping it structured and highly melodic, is probably beyond all but the most adept musical brains to fully appreciate, but we lesser mortals can enjoy being warmed by the glow. One of the finest parts of this music is Foster's own bass playing. The feel and quality he can put into timing, pressure and timbre of a single note, an arpeggio or bass chord, can take your breath away. Nic France's tasteful energy on drums and Corrina Silvester's sensitive, precise percussion on a fascinating array of instruments comprise a perfect framework for the improvisational front trio to do their thing.

The balanced set includes works by Gil Evans from his collaborations with Miles Davis, Mike Gibbs, John Lewis, Wayne Shorter and Jaco Pastorius. "Gone" by Gershwin and Heyward was a favourite of mine, with a concerto-like structure, beautiful melody and broad spaces for improvisation. An encore of Hendrix’s “Little Wing” with solos from Russell and Biscoe was a gem of an ending to the evening.

There are no egos in this ensemble. Individually they have nothing more to prove as players. As a result the playing is relaxed and focussed, six masters having fun creating ephemeral magic. Whatever day of the week, whatever the weather, however far away the gig is, I urge all to go and see this band. I'll see you there.

– Story and photo Ken Appleby

Kamaal Kicks It At Komedia

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"This ain’t jazz, this is blue funk", declares the evenings’ special guest, an unnamed compadre from Brooklyn who appears mid-set to contribute some stream-of-consciousness verbal meandering, but there’s a definite Gilles Petersen demographic to tonight’s sold-out show, Herbie’s ‘Sly’ is playing as walk-on music, and Kamaal Williams has just been announced as a Love Supreme headliner, so what’s in a definition? Decked out in bucket hat, big shades and gold tooth, Williams looks ready to take on all comers – he pumps up the crowd with some South London hyping then turns to one of his bank of analogue keys and hammers out a simple staccato lick – drums and bass enter with a smash, pounding out a heavy groove – then break – then drop – then break again, as Williams’s lick nags away. It’s a simple idea, but devastatingly effective and enough to get everyone in the room on board. 

Proceedings continue to take shape around a two-note bassline, garnished with slickly soulful licks from bassist Pete Martin’s seemingly endless supply. He and high-powered, hard-hitting drummer Dexter Hercules provide the backbone of the show, while Williams sprinkles textures and floats dreamy extended chords over the top, his palette of sounds chosen to hit all the right reference points – ripples of echoplex Rhodes, retro-synth squiggles, scratchy clavinet stabs. It’s like an extended basement jam driven forward by the relentless power of the crack rhythm team – appealingly uncontrived and infectiously energetic, and in this packed low-ceiling room it’s viscerally exciting.

There’s a synth bass-driven track, but the groove isn’t quite as compelling and some of the energy dissipates. Hercules has to labour his way though an extended drum solo to bring it back, but when the Brooklyn MC joins the proceedings things take an unexpected, not to say bizarre, turn, as an old-school jazzy hip-hop jam mutates into an actual 4/4 jazz swing that speeds up under the MC’s repeated yelps of "Hey Taxi", like a beatnik poetry slam. So, maybe it sorta is jazz after all.

It’s time to break out some of the Yussef Kamaal back catalogue, and the crowd’s energy pulls right back up. Williams' MO has developed along similar lines to ex-colleague Yussef Dayes since the split of their joint venture; long, organic jams based around minimal themes but strong sonic identities, kept afloat by the sheer energy of the performers. If Dayes has picked jungle as his template, Williams defaults to a high-energy funky house, and ‘Lowrider’ is his mission statement. There’s room for some shredding from the superb Pete Martin, and for Hercules to pose for selfies with the girls in the front row – a good-natured, freewheeling party vibe that’s shared out among the crowd and keeps everyone engaged to the end; no-one seems too worried about what genre it should be classified under.

Eddie Myer
– Photo by Anya Arnold

Young Guns Fire At Jammin' Juan Jamboree

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The Jammin' Juan marketplace is a three-day off-shoot of the long-running prestigious Jazz á Juan festival. Seven groups daily have just 35 minutes to impress an audience of industry professionals, including directors of some of France's many jazz festivals. Each afternoon there's a buzzy atmosphere and every evening two more bands play full sets in concert. Of these, the Philippe Villa Trio creates a warm Mediterranean glow playing some of the bandleader's piano-led compositions. The next night festival patron, English jazz singer Hugh Coltman, who's made a career in France with his original songs, has the audience on its feet. Soul and hip hop artist Sly Johnson's equally dynamic performance also gets the the closing-night crowd dancing.

The showcases, though, are the heart of the event. Binker and Moses impressed last year. This year French bands are joined by groups from Sweden, Luxembourg and Canada performing a wide range of jazz. On day one Paris-based Ryoko Nuruki & Afro Nippon's combination of the former's Japanese heritage with African rhythms sometimes echoes early Abdullah Ibrahim. The almost all brass SuPerDoG play nearly all King Crimson numbers. Starting with a New Orleans marching-band version of '21st Century Schizoid man' they show just how can these labrythine pieces can be twisted into a jazz style.

Juan-Gregory-Ott-Trio

Marthe are a fiery and soulful quartet merging traditional Greek music with contemporary jazz. The outstanding band of day one, though, is the Grégory Ott Trio. Their superb ensemble playing, with its fine interplay between piano and double-bass, is highly reminiscent of Phronesis.

Day two's showcase highlight comes at its begining, with ex-saxophonist, now bittersweet singer, Kevin Norwood's Quartet. Rather than performing as a singer and his side-men, this is a unit which pushes all in the same propulsive direction. They also take some risks. The young LynX Trio are a promising jazz guitar-led band who go from dreamy to power playing. Bakos, are a strange inclusion: a heavy metal duo who turn out to be a breath of fresh air, storming through seven songs in furious style and charming the audience.

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The final day is also the richest. Youpi 4tet, a beguiling flute and harmonica-led troupe, are buoyed by a driving rhythm-section which gives them a muscular grove. Sweden's Corpo, with six albums under their belt, have a warm edge to their Nordic cool and a sophistication that on the day is matched only by the punchy performance of the also very experienced Canadian Jean-Pierre Zanella and his quartet. The guitar and trumpet championing Anthony Jambon Group, and the lively Parisian funk band Ishkero definitely show some promise, but it's the thrilling, spine-tingling trumpet and flugelhorn playing of Montreal's Rachel Therrien Quartet that suggests Jammin' Juan might have uncovered a big jazz star of the future.

Colin May
– Photos by OTC Antibes Juan-les-Pins (Philippe Villa Trio; Grégory Ott Trio) and Colin May (Youpi 4tet) 

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