Ageless Astatke Leads African Head Charge At Jazz Á Vienne

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Jazz á Vienne's annual two-week gathering has been charming crowds for almost four decades, thanks to a diverse and vibrant programme and a headline venue – a stone-built Roman amphitheatre – that never fails to get jaws dropping.

Choosing what to see from this year's embarassment of riches (Ron Carter, Melody Gardot, Marcus Miller, more) wasn't easy. But after a 20-minute taxi ride from Lyon and a meander around an old town festooned with images of this year's mascot – a Miles-meets-Marvel trumpet player (courtesy of graphic artist Brüno), it was up the hill to the Théatre Antique, with its vertiginous terraces and summit dotted with temples and ancient statues, and an Africa-themed night boasting three A-listers.

Mulatu Astatke, the daddy from Addy, led a seven-piece outfit of UK-based players, among them cellist Shanti Paul Jayasinha, fresh from Orphy Robinson's remarkable Voicestra Polyphonic Collective debut at the Gibraltar World Music Festival. Astatke, 74, seemed reinvigorated by his music, a hypnotic meld of funk, soul, latin jazz, Ethiopian tones and extra heavy percussion, gifting us stints on congas, timbales, vibes and keys: effortlessly, elegantly dexterous. This line-up, give or take the odd change, has been with Astatke for a while and no wonder, what with John Edwards' bass thundering mightily alongside percussionist Richard Olatunde Baker's chattering krakeb castanets, Byron Wallen's warm and expansive horn vying with James Arben's fierce tenor-sax squalls and a loose-limbed Hawkins perched, Gould-like, at a baby grand, delivering chords chewy enough to get your teeth into.

Then came Malian singer/songwriter Rokia Traore, barefoot and regal in a blue shift dress, a Stratocaster around her neck, the fire in her belly almost palpable. Flanked by musicians on electric bass, guitar and riffing ngoni lute, aided by a kit drummer on a mission, Traoré unwound slowly, her lyrics in French and Bambara crisp and pure, her charisma mesmerising. Traoré is a committed boundary pusher who has long blended traditional West African rhythms with jazz, folk and rock. She has previously covered 'Strange Fruit' and collaborated with the likes of the Kronos Quartet, but here she worked on adding layers, establishing grooves. Laying aside her guitar, she danced with a fluid freneticism, taking back the mic to sing of the power and beauty of Africa, of its challenges and riches. It was a consummate performance cheered on by the 7,000 plus crowd. That new Mama Africa mantle is in the bag.

Standing centre-stage in a white and gold boubou, Youssou N'Dour spread his arms and delivered 'New Africa', an exhortation to work together for change, to consider the legacy of pan-Africanists Cheikh Anta Diop and Kwame Nkrumah. Formerly Senegal's minister for culture, N'Dour has left political office and his music, refreshed, has benefitted. Africa's most successful singer, N'Dour garnered attention in the 1980s as the golden-voiced leader of Etoile de Dakar (a 'jazz orchestra' that like similarly designated ensembles in the region – represented a modern African negritude) and created the popular dance style, mbalax, fusing jazz, rock and latin music with traditional rhythms. Surrounded by stalwarts including maestro percussionist Babakar Faye, pounding a row of conical sabar drums into submission with a stick, and axeman Jimi Mbaye, firing lightning bolts from a Fender Strat (with which he also recreated the sound of the kora), and with keys, kit drums, two backing singers, a tama talking drum player and a face-off between Faye on djembe and a somersaulting acrobat/dancer, this was a Senegalese-style soul revue with hit after hit and encore 'Redemption Song' raising clenched fists along the terraces.

Down in the 350-capacity Theatre Municipal Vienne, the experimental Jazz Mix series kicked off at midnight with London's Ruby Rushton, here in trio format. Led by Ed 'Tenderlonious' Cawthorne on flute, beats and soprano sax, with Aidan Shepherd on keys and Tim Carnegie on drums, they served up spiritual jazz mains including 'Prayer for Yusef', along with edgy Hancock-esque fusion, holding their own under mercilessly hot stage lights before a gaggle of drunken twenty-somethings.

Special mention, too, to the following night's late nighters: Lagos-based guitarist Keziah Jones, who improvised a thrilling set under the stars at 2am. Representing Dalston's Total Refreshment Centre were improvisation dons Ill Considered, a London quartet featuring tenor saxophonist Idris Rahman, who squalled and snaked through, around and alongside the freeform expression of Emre Ramazanoglu on drums, Yahael Camara-Onono on percussion and way-out-there bassist Leon Brichard. Their intense free jazz had a 1960s devotional vibe and the potential to take them further, to a summit, perhaps, and beyond.

Jane Cornwell
Photo by Pierre Corvaisier 

See The Wood From The Trees: Splashgirl Sun-Blessed Amid Südtirol's Stunning Sights And Sounds

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Director Klaus Widmann's theme for this year's Südtirol Jazz Festival was 'Exploring the North', with most of the musicians and bands chosen from Scandinavian countries. Yet other nations were represented too, as demonstrated by a performance from Estonian saxophonist and composer Maria Faust (below) who led her band on-stage to perform her award-winning composition 'Sacrum Facere', a suite of seven pieces about the destiny of women through the ages. The music – inspired by Estonian folk and sacred music – is haunting and beautiful. As the natural light fades and the surrounding granite faces becomes more dominating, the experience becomes dramatic and quasi-spiritual.

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Norwegian piano trio Splashgirl (pictured top) are set up in a small glade in the trees, with the audience sat in wooden chairs scattered among the trees. The sun filters through the canopy above, acting as tiny spotlights highlighting the band, as they infuse their urbane post-jazz stylings with subtle electronics. Meanwhile, in the cellars of a small country hotel and vineyard artist-in-residence, saxophonist Pauli Lyytinen and Tuomas A. Turunen play two short improvised compositions – the Finns combining brassy bellows with Turunen's accompaniment on a pair of wine bottles. Turunen loves his wine and has, so far, transcribed the taste of over 150 wines into musical notation. As each wine is sampled the pair give their musical interpretation of it on piano and sax. A heady mix of improv and alcohol!

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The big concert on the festival's final day was held outside a mountain hut 2,154m up in the Dolomites (above). The concert featured a composition in five movements by Lyytinen, using seven drummers and Andreas Stensland Löwe on electronics) to augment the natural drama of the amazing backdrop. At times, ominous looking clouds added to the extraordinary combinations of sights and sound. 

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Other shows that deserve mention include Mats Gustafsson's Fire!, who were joined by the excellent Swedish vocalist Mariam Wallentin. The group managed to accomodate the fragility of Wallentin's beautiful vocals with the full onslaught of Gustafsson's baritone sax (above) and Johan Berthling's thumping bass to great effect. Elsewhere, Verneri Pohjola gave two excellent concerts – one a duo in the modern art museum with percussionist Mika Kallio and the other with his full band showcasing his Edition album Pekka in a working woollen mill.

This festival is clearly a labour of its director's passions – featuring mostly unknown or emerging artists, and most of the concerts are free. In choosing locations of outstanding natural beauty and, in some cases, sites that are completely off-the-wall, Widmann and his team create an experience that's not just unique, but world class.

Tim Dickeson (story & photos)

There's Noh Limit: Space In Between At London's King's Place

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This two-day festival that explores and extends the 650-year-old tradition of Japanese ritual performance art Noh is a welcome event, given the success of its previous 2016 edition. Although the talks and workshops on what is a highly complex, codified form, where mask and movement as well as music all cohere with enormously rigorous discipline, are not without interest, the concerts, which bring together artists from different backgrounds, are fascinating. Tonight Japanese nokhan flautist Yukihiro Isso and British pianist Leon Michener pool their respective talents on the same stage where Isso memorably met Evan Parker two years ago, and though it is a relatively sparse audience in Hall Two, the smaller of Kings Place's two basement auditoriums, there is nonetheless a palpable sense of excitement as they take up position. Isso can be heard clearly due to the clapping of his wooden clogs under long-flowing robes. He walks to a table under the light on which no fewer than nine flutes are laid out. Dressed soberly in a black shirt and trousers, Michener approaches a Steinway next to which is an electronics station comprising laptop, synth and mixer.

As they start another minor sartorial detail comes into play. Michener is wearing a black glove. It is glimpsed by any eyes that follow him as he leans right into the body of the piano, and presumably enables him to tighten or loosen his grip on the strings and other inner mechanisms in order to produce startling timbres that range from dark, dense roars that flood the low register to higher-pitched scrapings, the net result of which conjures up an ambience of both enticement and foreboding. Unflinching in his posture, Isso proceeds to shatter into life with a violent maelstrom of sound that he sustains with astonishing consistency and accuracy as he moves from one flute to another without pausing for a moment. Later on, in a passage of Parker-esque circular breathing, he will negotiate a series of wavering harmonies where his intonation is so pinpoint sharp it sounds as if he is atomising a split tone. On some instruments he is piccolo-like, practically scorching the air by the ferocity of his attack, and on a curved animal horn he has a warm velvety muffle akin to an alto-flute. The volume at which he plays is as remarkable as the sustained flow of ideas, and it is telling that at no point in his exchanges with Michener, who crafts grainy textures and displaced phrases over a stark sub-bass throb, is Isso ever drowned out.

After Rahsaan-like multi-phonics through two or three flutes played simultaneously, and some discrete but effective motifs from Michener on piano, the pair unite on the highpoint of the performance; a gorgeous passage where they play short themes and variations back to one another, with the low, slightly hoarse tone of the flutes now like a child's recorder. It is innocence incarnate. Further excitement is generated by the arrival of Mitsuhiro Kakihara on otsuzum hip drum. Yet, as he sits a few feet away from Isso, he looks quite tentative. He executes the distinctive action of stretching his arm out in time with a vocal cry, but struggles to be heard amid the other instruments. His projection is smothered out. It is a slightly underwhelming episode on what is otherwise a fascinating adventure through an 'ancient to future' musical landscape.

Kevin Le Gendre
– Photo by Mayumi Hirata 

The Invisible get Brighton buzzing with Electric Miles: Miles Davis Through The 1970s

Take the current craze for mindfulness, add one pioneering jazz album, get a 400-strong audience to listen to it in silence, then bring them back to hear a key period of the artist's music brought to life by some of the most groundbreaking contemporary musicians around .... and you get an idea of one of the most anticipated jazz performances at Brighton Festival this year.

Festival Director and illustrator David Shrigley, responsible for bringing to Brighton the Played Twice: Kind Of Blue concept developed by Dalston venue Brilliant Corners, with this performance not only culturally juxtaposed two consecutive centuries in one afternoon, but also presented a giant prism through which rainbow rays of musical light by contemporary band The Invisible, introduced potentially new fans to the whole era of the electric recordings of Miles Davis.

Brought up on jazz, the Invisible introduced a modern spin on Davis' affectionate tribute "Billy Preston". The fresh and fiery dual drumming of Leo Taylor, alongside Steve Argüelles from the original John Taylor Trio, augmented by the intelligent accents of Tom Herbert's bass, drew whoops and cheers from the audience highlighting the improvisational free spirit in the air. Robert Stillman's delicate but assured soloing on tenor sax and bass clarinet, provided the true soul of the ensemble, with Byron Wallen's pulsating trumpet embodying its heart. Nick Ramm's cool Fender Rhodes tones characterised 'The Ghetto Walk', and, melding with Wallen's hot clarion call, brought one of the better-known Davis compositions of this era, 'Tutu', to dramatic climax, further imbuing 'Little Church', composed by Hermeto Pascoal, with occasionally supernatural atmospherics.

"Miles had so many influences," says bassist Tom Herbert, "... acts like Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Cream ... that's what he was listening to!" Sure enough, the second set unfurled the deep funk, psychedelic and heavy rock elements intrinsic in guitarist and bandleader David Okomu's playing, morphing seamlessly into the jazzier musical direction Hendrix might perhaps have taken had he stayed around, as implied in his later albums.

Smiling and waving to an audience which refused to let them go, The Invisible encored with 'So What', 'Black Satin' and 'In a Silent Way', an inspired medley which, while infused with the players' own distinct flavour, also personified timelessness in its truest sense, just as Miles Davis would have wished.

Jasmin Sharif

Annie Whitehead’s Interplay bring Township sounds to Leamington

Given the background of trombonist Annie Whitehead and her involvement with African music, it came as no surprise that the concert at Leamington's Restaurant in the Park reflected this and the spirit of Dudu Pukwana, Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba was in the air. Her collaboration with bassist Adrian Litvinoff's band, Interplay, drew strong solos from all the musicians and their enjoyment was apparent throughout the evening, a feeling that transferred itself to the appreciative audience. All the material generated a freedom of expression and the opportunity for personal improvisation, but keeping within the compositional structure. This was demonstrated in works by Abdullah Ibrahim, Masekela and, suitably, trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, as well as Litvinoff's own engaging composition 'The Shuffle'. Saxophonist Alan Wakeman was on top form on both tenor and soprano, and on Ibrahim's 'The Mountain' he contributed a haunting flute solo. Pianist Neil Hunter used a highly percussive approach throughout, suitably appropriate for the music. But the use of two trombones in the front line was of particular interest, Richard Baker's straight-ahead playing complementing Annie's freer and more experimental style. This was especially noticeable on J.J.Johnson's 'Kenya', a tight arrangement of the soulful number from Johnson's Let's Hang Out album of the early 1990s, all three horns doing it justice, straight from the hip. The trombonists also combined well later by building a supportive platform, supplementary riffing when Litvinoff's bass was featured.

While Dave Balen laid down a firm township beat on many of the numbers, his approach reminds this writer of the melodic textures of Chico Hamilton, alternatively vigorous then deftly understated, according to collective requirements. His percussion skills were effectively used on an improvised duet with Annie, which was followed by a solo trombone tribute to the late Roswell Rudd.

On several numbers the band was joined by vocalist Letitia George; firstly singing jazz standards – Oscar Brown Jr's 'The Snake', Mingus/George Gordon's 'Strollin'' (recalling Honi Gordon's famous versions) and a heartfelt delivery of 'God Bless The Child' which justifiably elicited the applause of her fellow performers. Pianist Hunter showed what a respectfully sensitive and thoughtful accompanist he can be. Moving into Makeba territory, she then involved the audience in a lively 'Pata Pata' – exciting and engaging, like all the evening's music.

Story and photo – Matthew Wright

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