Bennie Maupin evergreen and engerised at Ronnie Scott’s

Playing the night after the close of the London Jazz Festival may be the shortest of short straws for many musicians fearful of possible audience exhaustion following ten days of gigs. Yet the sizeable crowd drawn by multi-reedist Bennie Maupin attests to both his pulling power and the unquenchable thirst of punters, some of whom may have still been lapping up the memory of Charles Lloyd’s celestial session at the Barbican the evening before. Maupin’s place in history, in any case, is by no means a drop in the ocean. For the generation of listeners who came into jazz via fusion he was the introduction to the bass clarinet, the still relatively uncommon instrument the 74 year-old Detroit native played so memorably on Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters as well as on the accomplished solo albums that came both before and after.

His pedigree is even richer though, for it was Maupin who brought much to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, and his opening salvo tonight, a gorgeous reprise of Joe Zawinul’s In A Silent Way, the sister album to the aforesaid electric pathfinder, establishes a clear historical gravitas for proceedings. Backed by an excellent British pick-up band – Rod Youngs [drums], Vidal Montgomery [bass] and Carl Orr [guitar] – Maupin plays the piece on soprano, vividly conveying the deep pathos and yearning poignancy of the anti-war anthem by way of spacious, full-bodied sustained notes that ebb to the most gentle of hushes. Later on an iconic Milesian reference surfaces again via a smartly swinging take on ‘All Blues’, but if that represents the more reflective, lyrical side of the leader his energetic, joyful character is not far away.

The band segues into boisterous high tempo funk in which Youngs’ and Montgomery’s experience of playing both soul and Caribbean flavoured music comes into its own, and the injection of a flighty, dancing aggression into the downbeat draws a hearty cheer from a responsive audience. Switching to tenor, Maupin has a pinched, quite high tone that cuts through a dry, tight ensemble sound, which is given a pleasingly scratchy, grainy quality by some of Orr’s fuller power chords, but when he moves to the bass clarinet elsewhere in the set he creates the kind of sensual gurgle that recalls the singers who held down the low end lines in ‘50s barbershop vocal groups. Having said that, the percussion played by all members of the ensemble – on the skins of the kit; the body of the bass; the neck of the guitar; the keys of the horn – momentarily turns the stage into a smilingly subversive drum circle.  

While Maupin originals such as ‘See The Positive’ serve notice of his ability to compose as well as improvise it must be said that, clad in a dark jacket and Afro-Asian skullcap, he has the unforced charisma given to one who has covered much cultural and stylistic ground in an eventful life. He makes a point not often made – that the seminal bebop revolution started with Lester Young rather than Charlie Parker – and takes time to pay tribute to another musician, the great pianist and Parker sideman, Walter Bishop Jnr, whose name is not mentioned too much these days. All the young British members of the band, as well as the audience, seem to appreciate the opportunity to engage with Maupin, an elder whose influence should not be overlooked.


– Kevin Le Gendre

Brilliant Corners: The East London venue making jazz sound better

Thomas Rees swings by Dalston’s Brilliant Corners for the second event in their innovative Played Twice series, a new live music night where atmosphere and sound quality are everything and jazz cliché is left at the door

Last week during the EFG London Jazz Festival – as Tomasz Stańko took the stage at the Barbican, Chucho Valdés played to a sell out crowd at Kings Place and John McLaughlin rocked the Royal Festival Hall – a bar on Kingsland High Road held a gig that was every bit as momentous.

It’s a little place called Brilliant Corners, and if you haven’t heard of it that’s because it’s only just started hosting live music. Back in September, the venue put on the first in a series of events called Played Twice, a novel idea for a night that starts off as a record party and ends up as a gig. First there’s a playthrough of a landmark album on Brilliant Corners’ state of the art analogue sound system and then a band made up of top British jazzers reinterpret that recording live in the venue.

“We used to do a thing we called ‘Jazz Night’,” explains Amit Patel (pictured below), owner of Brilliant Corners along with brother Aneesh. “We’d take our speakers and all of the equipment that we had and invite people round to listen to a classic jazz album from start to finish. That was way before this venue, but after the success of doing it we realised that it just works. When we got this place, a friend of a friend knew [trumpeter] Quentin Collins and he was like ‘well you should take it one step further and play live music afterwards’. So we said ‘alright then, fine, we’ll do that’. I think it’s necessary in jazz,” he adds. “There are so many ideas, if you don’t give the audience a chance to hear it again I think a little bit of it is lost.”

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With that in mind, the series opened by giving Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz To Come the Played Twice treatment. Collins assembled an all-star quartet featuring trumpeter Byron Wallen, saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, Polar Bear drummer Seb Rochford and bassist Neil Charles and, by all accounts the venue was rammed. It was just as busy last week as I arrived for the second outing, a double play of Wayne Shorter classic Speak No Evil with Collins joining tenorist Tony Kofi, pianist Andrew McCormack, bassist Mark Lewandowski and drummer Enzo Zirilli for the second set.

After a delayed start and a charmingly amateurish introduction from the owners, the lights were dimmed, the kitchen was closed and the metal shutters at the front of the venue came down. “My brother and I think that if you create some kind of ceremony about listening to music it reveals itself better,” said Patel as he removed the record from its sleeve, and he was right.

I’m a child of the 90s, used to shutting out the world with a pair of headphones and listening to albums in fragments, confining them to the background or consuming them on the go. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve sat in the company of friends and listened to a album from start to finish. But for the next 40 minutes I found myself wondering why. As we sat together in the darkness and listened to the opening phrase of ‘Witch Hunt’ blossom out of the speakers, there was something intoxicating about the atmosphere, about the purr of the sleek silver turntable and the crackle and pop of the record.

It was only then that I understood why people are so fanatical about vinyl. It has a warmth and a softness that you don’t get with CD. It wraps the music up in cotton wool and it was perfectly suited to an album like Speak No Evil, emphasising the colour of Hancock’s harmonies, rounding out the harshness of Hubbard’s upper register and adding mellow undertones to the sound of Shorter’s sax. Brilliant Corners’ enviable sound system helps (you can find the full specs here if that's your thing), and I’m sure the team could talk your ear off about modified tone arms and copper wiring if you wanted them to.

But, refreshingly, there was nothing edgy or try hard about the event and when I asked if they were consciously tapping into the recent vinyl renaissance Patel cut me short. “We’re not consciously tapping into anything,” he said. “We just recognise that sonically it’s much better if you get a really good [vinyl] pressing, a really good needle, a really good amplifier and a really good set of speakers. We don’t do it to be trendy or fashionable.”

They take the same pretension-free approach to the music, and Patel was keen to tell me that he doesn’t “know shit about jazz”, pointing to my notebook and insisting I write it down. He and his brother are just amateur enthusiasts, he maintains, “the most forward thinking” of their friends.

It’s this relaxed approach, along with the deliberate omission of a certain four letter word from most the marketing material, which Patel attributes to the night’s success. “We pushed [the first event] hard because we believe in jazz and we think it’s sad the way it’s not really celebrated, but we did it in a way that’s not ‘jazzy’, so write that in your book,” he says with a smile. “We didn’t adhere to all those jazz clichés which put off so many people. Even the word jazz, it’s like ‘argh, God, jazz’.

“My brother works at a music law firm, but they’re like ‘hey, Aneesh. How’s your jazz bar going’,” he says, putting on a corny American accent. They make fun of him a little bit because jazz isn’t considered to be cool and it is cool. It’s the highest form of art. It’s just a matter of presentation. People think ‘I’m not clever enough for jazz’, but if you let yourself be disarmed and be primal and let it go straight in, then it all just makes sense.”

He may well be on to something. The crowd at the Wayne Shorter event certainly didn’t look like your typical jazz audience. Most of them were fresh faced East Londoners who were intrigued by the concept of Played Twice but knew little about the music itself. Yet after the playthrough they were hooked, and when Patel led an impromptu, jargon-free discussion about the importance of Speak No Evil and the challenges of recreating it, they seemed more than happy chiming in.

We talked about the album’s historical context (it was recorded in December 1964, the same month as Coltrane’s A Love Supreme) and about Shorter’s use of harmony, which was cutting edge for the time. Collins highlighted the strength of the ensemble playing (Shorter appeared alongside Freddie Hubbard in the horn section of the Jazz Messengers and had just joined the Miles Davis Quintet with Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter) and then, with the musicians doing their best not to look daunted, it was time to find out if they could do the album justice.

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From the flaring lines of ‘Witch Hunt’ to the easy swing of the title track and the tranquility of ‘Infant Eyes’, everything was as it should be – faithful to the original but full of personality. Weaving in bluesy phrases and touches of modern harmony, Kofi used his solos to riff on Shorter’s melodies, while Collins (above) whipped up the crowd with his stinging high register. McCormack (whose solo on ‘Dance Cadaverous’ was one of the highlights of the set) put his stamp on the performance with stacked harmonies and twisting lines which he embellished with gracenotes and a touch of Hancock-style tremolo. Phrasing with the soloists and loosening things up with gutsy cymbal work, Zirilli played a storm, while Lewandowski had Carter’s sauntering style down to a tee.

As ‘Wild Flower’ came to an energetic close, I’m sure I wasn’t the only person in the room wishing there were more nights like this. Cheers and whistles broke into rapturous applause and the players seemed touched by the reception. Kofi thanked the audience for being so attentive and Collins took a moment to praise the venue. “I’m sure we all got more out of that one playthrough than we did from 50 listens on our headphones or in our cars,” he said. “Keep supporting the night. It’s about remembering how to listen to music.”

– Thomas Rees @ThomasNRees

Played Twice returns on 19 December with Keith Jarrett’s My Song feat. Andrew McCormack (piano), Julian Siegel (saxophone), Sam Lasserson (bass) and James Maddren (drums). Nathaniel Facey will lead a performance of Coltrane’s Sound in February, with performances of Monk’s Brilliant Corners and Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda also planned for early 2015.

For more info go to brilliantcornerslondon.co.uk – photos by Miguel Echeverria

Black Top burn up with Jamaaladeen Tacuma at EFG London Jazz Festival

I would have been lying if I’d said I was in the mood for this. It had been a long day of coffee-fuelled laptop drudgery and, as much as I love free jazz, the last thing I wanted was to sit through a night of challenging improvised music in deepest darkest Dalston. But, come 11 o’clock I was willing it not to end.

An opening set from tenor saxophonist Seymour Wright and drummer Paul Abbott, collectively known as Xomaltesc Tbobhni, made for a mesmerising start. Facing one another across a darkened stage, they unleashed a relentless barrage of sound. A subtly-shifting acoustic loop of saxophone honks, screeches and whirring, machine-like noises that meshed with thrashing cymbal work and loose tom-tom rolls, it could have been a sonic sketch of some harrowing, mechanised dystopia.

Black Top, appearing with special guests Philip Achille on harmonica and Jamaaladeen Tacuma (a former member of Ornette Coleman's Prime Time) on bass guitar, took a little longer to find their stride. Five minutes in and I could feel my scepticism beginning to return, but their improvisation quickly gathered pace. Switching between iPad, synthesizer and piano, Pat Thomas stirred up a bubbling broth of electronic noise, adding scampering lines and subversive, hamfisted cluster chords. Orphy Robinson responded with chirpy laptop beats, distorted vocal samples and furious bursts of Xylosynth, while Achille offered wistful melodies, impassioned wails and snaking, chromatic lines.

Dressed in a patterned silk jacket and an orange scarf, Tacuma was at the heart of it all, busting out Jaco-esque bass licks and linking up with Achille on improvised melodies and broken funk grooves. He was instrumental in the sweeping builds and sudden drops in intensity that provided many of the highlights of the set and it was he who led the adrenaline-fuelled handshakes after a final Xylosynth flurry from Robinson brought things to a close.

As he did so, the house erupted into whistles and cheers and I was cheering along with them. This is the sort of improvised music that sucks you in and disarms your scepticism. Go in the foulest of moods and at your most difficult to impress and you’ll come out a delirious evangelist.

– Thomas Rees

@ThomasNRees

Bill Frisell takes Guitar In The Space Age to D’Jazz Nevers Festival

Nevers, in the very heart of France on the banks of the wide, fast flowing Loire, has a long history (28 years to be precise) as the location of one of the country’s most respected jazz organisations. Always an autumn highlight, the D’Jazz Nevers Festival is eight days of high quality, predominantly European jazz – including, this year, such names as Raoul Bjorkenheim’s eCsTaSy , Paul Rogers’ superbly inventive new Whahay trio and the (what’s the French for ‘bonkers’?) trumpet demon Mederic Collignon.

The final three days (13-15 November) packed in eleven well-attended concerts, by groups from duos to the eleven piece Orchestre National de Jazz (ONJ). Led by guitarist/composer Olivier Benoit and artistic adviser and first division bassist Bruno Chevillon, this iteration of the ONJ featured a fast, hard driving mix of influences redolent of rock and contemporary ‘new’ music. As much as the densely scored compositions, soloists such as the fiery virtuoso violinist Theo Ceccaldi and saxophonist Alexandra Grimal certainly made the audience sit up and take notice. And for an audience whose average age suggested that Les Originales de Werther were the bonbons of choice, this was no mean feat.

In keeping with the demographic, a pronounced element of Memory Lane Syndrome (no bad thing in itself as bus pass holders will attest) which pervaded this final weekend of the programme brought both pleasures and occasional disappointments.

Violinist Ceccaldi led his own trio (with guitar and cello) in a very post-modern deconstruction of everything from gypsy swing to the blues, in a set that was notable for its virtuosity and in which, ironically, the new music/improv sections sounded the most old fashioned. In a less edifying version of improv (and did we ever think we’d ever be so grumpy as to really now call it ‘plinky-plonk’?) in his East/West trio cellist Didier Petit spent too much time hitting the back of his instrument with the bow and wasted the opportunity to capitalise on the potentially fertile opportunity of bringing clarinettist Sylvan Kassap together with the Chinese guzheng (table harp) of Xu Fengxia.

Bill Frisell’s Guitar In The Space Age quartet drove straight to the Memory Six-Lane Freeway , making pop classics of the 1960s a joyful playground for musicians who had nothing left to prove and could revel in revisiting the Byrds, the Shadows, the Beach Boys, Duane Eddy and similar favourites. Although they couldn’t do much with the four in the bar rhythms and easy chord sequences, Frisell and his playmates clearly delighted in making every tremolo twang sound totally authentic as well as fondly affectionate.

The evening before, Steve Swallow’s quintet with Carla Bley (on Hammond organ) was preceded by a French nine-piece project which re-played pieces from Bley’s 1972 classic Escalator Over The Hill. In the audience, those who knew the music were content to remember the tunes and enjoy the reprise. Others, disappointed by the realisation that there was nothing new going on in this revival production – which was given the somewhat unfortunate English title ‘Over The Hills’ - were far more saddened by a dull, colourless set from heroes Swallow and Bley and their unremarkable sidemen.

This and other big concerts took place, perhaps appropriately, in the 1960s-built concrete Maison de Culture. Earlier, in the intimate ancient stone cavern of Pac des Ouches, the trio Un Poco Loco made happier and more creative use of older material – this time from the bebop era. With lightly-worn musicality and skill, saxophone/clarinet, string bass and the splendidly fluent trombone of the ONJ’s Fidel Fourneyron made engaging acoustic music that made them sound like a much bigger group whilst giving warm and friendly contemporary twists (with a fair bit of sympathetic deconstruction) to tunes from two generations back.

The big finish on Saturday night was more Exotic Routes than Memory Lane, headlining Cuban pianist Omar Sosa’s Quartetto AfroCubano and opening with saxophonist Jacques Schwarz-Bart and his mixed Haitian/French septet.

The latter’s project – Jazz Racine Haiti – delivered far less than promised, in that Schwarz-Bart spent endless time soloing himself or talking at great length between tunes about how he was fusing his jazz and Haitian influences and, in doing so, severely limited the scope for his young colleagues including startlingly energetic pianist Gregory Privat and the gloriously named (and vocally impressive) singer Marie Moonlight to shine.

Sosa, as might be expected these days, upped the ante, funking, jazzing, grooving and salsa-ing the audience into a frenzy of participation and enthusiasm which culminated in not just one but two ecstatic encores.

– Robert La Barbe

– Photo by Roger Thomas

Randy Weston and Billy Harper – Deeper than blue at QEH, EFG London Jazz Festival

Just a few days prior to this concert, the Branford Marsalis Quartet set the same stage alight with as incendiary an opening salvo for the EFG London Jazz Festival as could have been hoped for. Although pianist Randy Weston and tenor saxophonist Billy Harper (above) draw a significantly smaller crowd, the duo nonetheless maintains the same degree of excellence, and perhaps more importantly, shows how the diverse historical foundations of jazz remain launching pads for new musical adventures.

Marsalis was firmly rooted in bebop soil. Weston and Harper are planted deep in the earth of the blues. Their artistic triumph is that they are able to show how fertile is the land and how much it shifts into new territory by dint of the strength of character of the performers. 88 year-old Weston’s Monkish modernism, a furrow he has ploughed since the 1950s, is personalised by a fabulously strong touch, which lends to his low register lines the kind of granite-like density that does not leave the audience wanting for the sound of a double bass or kick drum, while the quicksilver runs of his right hand are both percussively fluid and teasingly fragmented, introducing ample breathing space into anthems such as ‘The Healers’ and the evocative solo piano piece ‘Night In Medina.’

Weston demonstrates the underlying African rhythm of ‘Hi-Fly’; his signature tune dating from 1959, by tapping the wooden frame of the piano as if it were a conga and so highlights the other major musical as well as cultural and political component of his life’s work. Yet the giant New Yorker gleefully recalls the moment he heard Coleman Hawkins’ ‘Body And Soul’ and fell in love with the tenor saxophone, which provides a cue for Harper’s solo feature, ‘If One Could Only See.’ It proves a heart-stopping moment.

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In the opening set of the evening J.D Allen (above), leading a well-drilled piano-less trio, had given a fine display of virtuosity on the same instrument, but Harper marks a sharp contrast to the younger player. His tone has a steely, often shrill, piercing quality that imbues his upper register with intense drama – a hark; a cry; a plea – and brings an absolute hush of reverence to the auditorium after his opening statement of the theme.

Long term admirers of the 71 year-old Texan, and they would include anybody from the generation of ‘80s players on whom he has had a clear influence [above all Gary Thomas and Steve Williamson], would have felt at home, as this sound has been in evidence since his classic 1975 album Black Saint. But Harper is imperious tonight, dispensing often terse, condensed, fraught lines that are night to the lengthy, florid flights of Allen’s day. Harper’s bass notes have a bulk and heft that need little amplification and gain more power for the way he plays them off against silence, but the central draw of the performance is his consistent reprise and re-harmonisation of the melody.

Like a Baptist preacher, he uses it as a solid bedrock, and makes the song sing effortlessly, reminding the audience that the church still has an immense part to play in the ongoing development of black music. When Weston again joins Harper on another of the pianist’s own enduring compositions, ‘Blue Moses’, which segues into Kofi Ghanaba’s ‘Love, The Mystery Of’, the two musicians reach the kind of advanced conversational intimacy only master players achieve. The notes, tones, thoughts and emotions feel as much of yesterday as of today.

– Kevin Le Gendre

– Photos by Roger Thomas

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