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.

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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) 

René Marie and John Clayton crown Vail Jazz Party

This year's Vail Jazz Party offered a much-needed escape, especially after a sudden late summer heatwave that hovered over the entire East Coast. Despite its high-altitude levels, (which, frankly, took some getting used to), with Colorado's mountainous backdrop and idyllic charm, one was simply transported as they relished in the weekend-long festival.

Founder and lifelong jazz fan Howard Stone said that concept for the Vail Jazz Series came to him in 1995, during a "snowy night [with] too much wine." Stone also added that one of the main goals of the series is to "find young musicians, inspire them, and teach them to carry on the music that we love so much." The annual Labor Day weekend festival has since grown into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organisation, dedicated to increasing audiences and creating educational opportunities for young people.

Some of its offerings include a jazz workshop series, comprising some of the country's top high school students, a music program called 'Vail Jazz Goes to School' for students based in Eagle County, and a free concert series offered several times throughout the year. This 24th edition of the Vail Jazz Party was a rousing culmination to over 12 weeks of live music through its summer Jazz Series, one that was needed (now more than ever), given the country's current political climate.

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The growth of the Vail Jazz Series is attributed to several factors, one of them being John Clayton (above). A student of Ray Brown, Grammy award-winner Clayton is not only one of the music's most sought-after double bassists, but also one of the country's leading jazz educators. For more than 20 years, Clayton has served as Director of the Vail Jazz Workshop. At the festival's kickoff on Thursday evening, Clayton sat alongside me in the front row and watched his students and alumni, like a proud father, share some of the lessons gained from his constant tutelage.

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Following an opening set from the Vail Jazz All-Stars, this year's Jazz Workshop students, the Vail Jazz Alumni Quintet (above) took to the Jazz Tent at Vail Square, the festival's main stage. For over two decades, the alumni band has been a great indicator of who will become the next crop of jazz voices. This latest installment of the alumni band, which featured bassist Zach Brown, saxophonist Hailey Niswanger and trombonist Jeffery Miller, did not break tradition. Notable past alumni who have since gone on to make their own mark in jazz include trumpeters Ambrose Akinmusire and Christian Scott [aTunde Adjuah], saxophonist Grace Kelly, and keyboardist James Francies. As Vail Jazz Party House Band closed out the first night, they not only set the overall tone for the festival, but more importantly, offered audiences a shining example of what decades of hard work and dedication to one's craft looked like, in the form of brothers John and saxophonist Jeff Clayton, trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, trumpeter Terell Stafford, drummer Lewis Nash and pianist Bill Cunliffe.

Another one of Ray Brown's prize pupils is none other than pianist Benny Green. As Green made frequent appearances throughout the weekend, his adeptness on the instrument was almost overshadowed by his modesty as he paid homage to an endless list of former teachers, band leaders and influences, including Brown, Art Blakey, and the underrated genius of pianist Walter Davis, Jr.

On Sunday evening, Byron Stripling's live set at the nearby Vail Marriott combined an interactive lesson plan with live performance, providing audiences with added insight into the genius that was trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison. A former lead trumpeter and soloist in the Count Basie Orchestra, Stripling learned firsthand from not only one of the orchestra's founding members, but also the go-to trumpeter for Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra.

Another crucial element to any jazz festival are the late night jam sessions. Held from Friday through Sunday night at the Vail Marriott, the jam sessions offered much of the lineup, including Clayton, Green and vocalist René Marie (picture top) an opportunity to not only expound on ideas merely introduced during their live sets, but to also create a platform that encourages both aspiring and seasoned musicians, alike, to perform alongside one another and allow nothing but their inspiration to guide them. With fewer performance venues and more chances to catch this year's lineup, the Vail Jazz Party was truly designed with the jazz aficionado in mind.

– Shannon J Effinger

– Photos by Jack Affleck

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