Jesse Davis and Billy Hart come out swinging with the Damon Brown International Quintet

A wet Monday in early January didn’t auger well, but an agreeable sized audience greeted UK trumpeter/composer Damon Brown at Pizza Express Jazz Club, boosted by the presence of American cousins, saxophonist Jesse Davis and drummer Billy Hart. Davis, a former student of Ellis Marsalis at the New Orleans Centre for Creative Arts, received the prestigious ‘Most Outstanding Musician’ Downbeat award in 1989 and since that time has recorded a steady flow of albums for Concord as leader. Hart’s back catalogue as a sideman is a veritable who’s who of jazz greats and so the venue held a warm sense of anticipation, which the International Quintet didn’t disappoint.

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Brown (above) mixed up his own compositions with a selection of standard tunes, and as a composer writes interesting melodies. His arrangements make good use of the quintet line-up with well-conceived rhythm section vamp figures and trumpet-sax harmonised melodies (the quirky cross-rhythm vamp of jazz waltz ‘Kit Kat’ comes to mind). Although the weighty tradition of this combination of instruments evokes a sound-legacy that is challenging to escape from, Brown’s originals successfully provided interesting vehicles to launch his soloists.

On his way to the bandstand the ever-friendly Hart commented: “I hope you like loud drummers!” The opening bars of ‘Blues for Somebody Else’ (Steve Grossman) proved he wasn’t kidding as the drummer (now in his seventies) thunderously raised the temperature gauge sky-high before settling into a cymbal-time simmer. Bombastic drum interjections characterised the evening, creating energy overloads that only a drummer of Hart’s standing could pull off with impunity.

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Brown led his group with confidence and as a soloist really knows how to move through the gears, shaping his lines with an increasing intensity while incorporating a pleasing motivic logic. The leader described sideman Davis as “lyrical and soulful” and the saxophonist performed with fluidity of ideas throughout. However, the sharp-suited reeds man hit top speed during the Duke Pearson number ‘Jeannine’, sweating through a monumental solo of focussed musical intent. Davis listened with obvious contentment throughout each of pianist Paul Kirkby’s solos whereas bassist Martin Zenker solidly led the band through each high-energy drum explosion, demonstrating a skilful use of double-stops throughout the night. Overall, although the gig was not without its blemishes, talent abounded and the leadership of Brown counterbalanced by the gravitas of Hart made for an interesting evening of jazz.

– Jamie Fyffe

– Photos by Roger Thomas

Curtis Stigers swinging and sublime at Ronnie Scott’s

At the pulsating core of Ronnie Scott’s stood a slick Curtis Stigers, intoning his moving tribute to American jazz pianist, Gene Harris, entitled ‘Swingin’ Down at Tenth & Main’: the packed crowd behind rows of beacon-like red lamps were his wings, tipped with the photographed presence of others of jazz’s glitterati who have graced this stage.

As a youngster, distinctive vocalist, saxophonist and songwriter Stigers attended jam sessions led by Harris at the Idanha Hotel in his home town of Boise, Idaho and it was here he developed a passion for jazz that has remained with him throughout a 23-year career as a Emmy-nominated and platinum-selling soul and rock artist and since 2001, an award-winning jazz singer.

If tonight’s fabulous gig was anything to go by, it was this inspirational grounding in jazz that has ensured his informed and intelligent transition from rock to jazz star. Joining him for two sets which showcased many of the tracks off his latest album, Hooray for Love released in April 2014, plus unexpected numbers such as John Lennon’s ‘Jealous Guy’, were his top-notch touring band, Matthew Fries on piano, Cliff Schmitt on double bass, Paul Wells on drums and James Scholfield on guitar.

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All of them were on smokin’ form: Stigers’ tenor saxophone growled, played up close to the mic on opener ‘I’ll Be Home’ by Randy Newman, during which Fries and Scholfield immediately got deep down on piano and guitar. Pleasing to the ear was Wells’ execution of the ‘Pionciana Beat’; a quasi-rhumba beat invented in the 1950s by American drum legend, Vernel Fournier, in accompaniment to ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’.

Superlative use was made of dynamics throughout, with some dramatic fade-outs, and Scmitt’s melodious, quiet sections during his double bass solos demanded a closer listen, varying the overall musical texture of the highly charged show.

Stigers wittily described his pop record from 1992, ‘You’re All That Matters To Me’ as being “from the late 1800s; one of Prince Albert’s favourites.” It was performed with a contemporary twist, however, with Stigers beatboxing convincingly during the introduction. The rocky middle section was felt sensitively by all, punctuated by Fries’ neat staccato stops on piano and Wells’ delicate work on cymbals.

Scholfield’s compelling guitar playing was by turns exceptionally gentle, for example his rhythm guitar on standard, ‘Love Is Here To Stay’ and red-blooded: On ‘My Babe’ by Chicago blues man, Willie Dixon, the audience went wild for his blues guitar solo. Here also, Stigers and Schmitt were unknowingly swaying together in unison as if they were both cut from the same cloth.

Stigers totally inhabited ‘Valentine’s Day’ by Steve Earle; his slidey vocal inflections here lent believability to the pathos of the lyrics, indeed following his tender rendering of Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields’ ‘The Way You Look Tonight’, he said that great songs are “the kind you get lost in.”

A consummate artist, Stigers elegantly brings to his work an amalgamation of everything he has learnt from his musical heroes and from working within the genres of jazz, rock and pop to create something original, which along with his own fine modern jazz standards such as ‘Hooray for Love’, propel his music beyond ‘interesting’ to the echelons of the sublime.

– Gemma Boyd

– Photos by Carl Hyde www.hydeandhyde-photography.com

Archie Shepp heads up memorable Jazzfest Berlin

Jazzfest Berlin (formerly Berlin Jazz Festival) celebrated two events this year: its 50th anniversary and the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. Its first edition in 1964 was opened by Dr Martin Luther King and this was recalled now by Elliott Sharp (pictured bottom) through music, visuals and the words of Dr King. Sharp’s searing slide guitar intertwined with the voices and poetry of Eric Mingus and Tracie Morris in a powerful statement that set an agenda for the next four days. Already lauded as an important young drummer on the German scene, Eva Klesse (pictured below) revealed her exceptional writing skills in a series of six compelling pieces with her quartet. Like changing weather patterns, she can follow a delicate bass/piano duet with a steaming “out” alto sax solo or a powerful drum solo, but never undermining the overall narrative.

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Their Bristolian charm and wit of Get the Blessing quickly won theheartsof theBerlin audience and ensured its rapt attention for their unique blend of free jazz, hip-hop, electronica, looping and soul-section trumpet/tenor interplay. For all their casual, downbeat demeanour, this tight, well-rehearsed unit has crafted their ideas with great care and their music carried a real punch. Soweto Kinch was the next Brit to woo the Berlin audience and this he did with his virtuosic rap skills (who else can articulate words with such clarity at such speed?) and his freestyle rap B-e-r-l-i-n. Ably assisted by Nick Jurd (bass) and the award-winning Moses Boyd (drums), Soweto also reminded the audience that he is a highly original saxophone improviser.

Making his 18th appearance at the Jazzfest Berlin, veteran Swiss drummer Daniel Humair’s quartet featured not only the extraordinary interplay between alto saxophonist Emile Parisien and accordionist Vincent Perirani, but the superb compositions of Humair himself. But perhaps the most memorable event of the festival was the duet of Archie Shepp (pictured top) and Jasper Van’t Hof playing to 1,000 people in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church on the Saturday afternoon. Their music spoke for everyone.

– Charles Alexander

– Photos Copyright © Matthias Creutziger (middle and bottom photos)

Enlightenment Ensemble evoke the spirit of A Love Supreme at Union Chapel

They say that fortune favours the brave, and right now in jazz circles they don’t come much braver than flautist Roland Sutherland. Let’s keep things in perspective. To my knowledge, he hasn’t taken a bullet for Sonny Rollins or waltzed through a North Korean minefield to spread the word about Jacob Collier. But, he has had a crack at John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, one of the most revered albums in the history of jazz. Not only that, but he performed it in front of a sell-out Union Chapel crowd 50 years to the day since it was recorded at the Van Gelder Studio in New Jersey.

In my book, that deserves respect. Even if the whole thing had come crashing down around him and had veered towards lacklustre, cheap and nasty, everything for a pound imitation, he should still have got a pat on the back, a gold star for effort and a voucher towards a five star police protection programme. But fortunately it didn’t come to that, because, not only is Sutherland brave, he’s also a man of impeccable taste and formidable musical ability.

If anything, his re-envisioning of the legendary saxophonist’s magnum opus, arranged for the 15-piece Enlightenment Ensemble, went the other way and for the first ten minutes it was hard to find anything resembling A Love Supreme amidst the thrumming of Senegalese kora and Indian percussion. Still, there was plenty to enjoy in the tribal vocals and galloping rhythms of the bata drummers, the treasure trove of exotic instruments on stage and the long white robes worn by the performers (black embroidered with gold in the case of xylosynth player and MD Orphy Robinson).

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Nor was it long before Coltrane’s music began to emerge. At first there were just glimpses of it, allusions to the familiar four-note riff from ‘Acknowledgement’ in Nikki Yeoh’s piano and in the horns. But, when a slinky reworking of ‘Resolution’ broke through some furious Mark Mondesir cymbal work, the references began to come thick and fast.

Intricate, percussion-heavy cross-rhythms came to recall the dexterity of Elvin Jones. Yeoh’s pounding block chords and side-stepping motifs were the real McCoy Tyner. Yaron Stavi’s pedal-to-the-metal swing and boozy, slide guitar-like bass feature channelled Jimmy Garrison and there was spirituality in the recitations of vocalists Juwon Ogungbe and Cleveland Watkiss, who delivered passages of Coltrane’s psalm from their perch in the heavy stone pulpit.

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Sutherland’s manipulations of melodies sometimes rendered them a little less intense and a little more carefree than the originals but there was more than enough anguish in the solos to compensate. Nostrils flaring, Steve Williamson (above) wrestled with his tenor, Pat Thomas’ keyboard yelped and Shabaka Hutchings’ bass clarinet sobbed and wailed.

By the end, as the lights went out and the cheers went up, most of the band and half the audience looked like they’d been through the mill. But so they should. A Love Supreme is about an arduous spiritual journey, not some happy clappy walk in the park. It’s about effort, frustration and faith learnt the hard way. It’s an offering of thanks by a recovered heroin addict and a reassessment of just how precious life is. Sutherland and the Enlightenment Ensemble understand that. Better still, they’re brave enough to play like it.


– Thomas Rees
– Photos by Roger Thomas

Vula Viel get Passing Clouds bouncing

Even at Passing Clouds, a funky, vibrant venue that embodies the best of cosmopolitan Dalston, it’s not often you find a Saturday night crowd dancing enthusiastically to the funeral music of a Ghanaian tribe. They did just that on Saturday night, however, with Bex Burch’s world-jazz outfit Vula Viel playing much of their soon-to-be-released debut album, their pieces based on the traditional repertoire of the Dagaare People of northern Ghana.  

Bex Burch (pictured top) has taken an unusual route to leading Vula Viel, her world-jazz band that’s just recording its debut album. Trained as a classical percussionist, she has spent several years with the Dagaare People, learning in a traditional apprenticeship to make and play gyilli, the xylophones made with sacred lliga wood and gourd resonators. But the rest of the band – George Crowley (tenor sax), Dan Nicholls (keys), with drummers Simon Roth and Dave de Rose (pictured below) – all have fine jazz credentials, and over the programmed rhythmic pattern on which these pieces are founded, there’s plenty of space for individual experimentation.  

African rhythms have been in jazz since the start, of course, but Vula Viel, like Shabaka Hutchings’ MOBO-winners Sons of Kemet, is part of an intriguing trend to re-investigate and re-introduce African elements afresh. With two drummers and the xylophone to throw ideas around, Vula Viel’s use of the complex, asymmetrical bell pattern rhythm found across sub-Saharan music was both fascinating, sometimes entrancing, and (for the adventurous) entirely danceable. Simon Roth and Dave De Rose, sitting opposite one another in the centre of the stage sharing a kit, pushed and pulled to create intricate, lilting, polyrhythms. Burch is also interested in the minimalism of composers like Steve Reich (who was himself, of course, influenced by aspects of West African rhythm), and there were traces of Reich’s intriguing cycles and patterns in some of Vula Viel’s pieces.  

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There was, perhaps, a touch of formula about the way the pieces tended to develop, from a soft, generally slow-paced beat to a compelling frenzy of sound towards the end of the song. This was especially the case with ‘Bine’, the Dagaare funeral music, which began with some atmospheric synth chords then built to a propulsive, ecstatic-sounding (bearing in mind it’s set at a funeral) climax. It was also the case to a lesser extent with the first piece, ‘Bewa’, as well as ‘Lobi 2’ and ‘Gandayina’. Vula Viel can really party, too – the encore, ‘Bewa Bomb’, got the room bouncing.     

George Crowley’s tenor sax had more than a touch of Shabaka Hutchings in its staccato, stabbing rhythms. His tone doesn’t quite have Hutchings’ piercing edge (though the band’s sound overall is a little gentler than Sons of Kemet’s and he doesn’t have to compete with Oren Marshall’s crazy tuba) but his reedy tone complements the percussive edge of the rhythm section and Nicholls’ airy electronica.  

Bex Burch’s gyil stood opposite Dan Nicholls’ synth and effects desk, in a striking image that says a lot about the band’s blending of traditional and contemporary technology. Nicholls’ contributions were generally delicate, and it was only when everyone played quietly that the synth could clearly be heard. His role here was a subtle harmonic and rhythmic one, though there is perhaps room for him to have a higher-profile role in future work. Though the gyil, with its traditional string and gourd construction, can’t help looking slightly ramshackle alongside Nicholls’ gear, its sound is punchy and clean, but resonant and evocative too. With so much else going on, it was difficult to hear the characteristic buzzing of the gourds, but the pealing of the keys, which can sound, depending on context, both happy and melancholy, gives Vula Viel an instant, unmistakable originality.   

They played the first set in a varied triple bill alongside two very different acts, and the jostling, happy crowd certainly weren’t groupies, though they were won over by the Vula Viel’s quirky and engaging rhythms. After this set is recorded on the band’s debut release, out next April, Burch says they will work on a second set of her own original tracks. These players have already created a niche on the busy world jazz scene that’s all their own; with new and varied material, they could really become something special.

– Matthew Wright (story and photos)

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