Nat Birchall Quartet, Leafcutter John and Andreas Schaerer make for an irresistible Jazz In The Round

Less than 24 hours after the finale of this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival you would have thought that live jazz would have been the last thing on most Londoners’ minds. But a ticket to Jazz In The Round, a monthly event held at the Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone and hosted by Jazz on 3’s Jez Nelson, is a difficult thing to resist.

Informally dubbed the Jazz In The Round Christmas Party but mercifully free from festive repertoire, this month’s triple bill opened with a set from Swiss vocalist Andreas Schaerer who performed to a packed house. Schaerer is part standup comedian, part beatboxer and part singer and his immaculately paced introductory spiel and vocal trickery had the audience in fits of giggles from the start. (I won’t spoil it by telling you why). Those giggles turned to murmurs of disbelief in the following number as he sang a simple township melody while beatboxing over the top, throwing in an assortment of effects that ranged from trumpet and rattle noises to the sound of a squash ball ricocheting around the room. A ‘stereo’ rendition of Sonny Rollins’ ‘Oleo’ sung across two microphones came next and then it was time for some participatory drones from the audience while Schaerer added a haunting near-eastern melody and hammed up his role as conductor.

Just as engaging was an appearance from Polar Bear electronicist Leafcutter John (pictured above) who arrived armed with a sparkler, a candle, two bike lights, a camera phone and a lighter, with which to conjure fizzing, ambient soundscapes from a perspex box full of light sensitive electronics. By altering the settings on his painstakingly pre-programmed laptop and varying the intensity and the position of the lights, he produced a mesmerising array of sounds, layering pitch bends and distorted vocals over muffled drumbeats and trembling washes of church organ before handing things over to headliner Nat Birchall (pictured top).

Performing alongside pianist Adam Fairhall, bassist Michael Bardon, drummer Johnny Hunter and an animated, barefoot Corey Mwamba on vibraphone, the Manchester-based saxophonist offered up a series of impassioned, musical prayers set against smouldering modal backdrops. Among the highlights was a unnamed track from the group's forthcoming album, which floated an imploring sax melody over throbbing bass and punchy piano and vibes.

The saxophonist makes no secret of his love for John Coltrane and, though his soprano sound (at times uncannily like that of a cor anglais) is very much his own, both his tenor playing and his compositional style owe a lot to the great man. A rendition of Bill Lee’s ‘John Coltrane’ was a fitting tribute, opening with gravely piano and bass before launching a solo for Birchall that merged seamlessly with the opening line of a blistering Mwamba vibes feature. Closing with the title track from their 2011 release Sacred Dimension, the group brought the house down. Jazz festival or no jazz festival, there’s always room for more good music.

– Thomas Rees

– Photos by Steven Cropper

Jazz In The Round returns on 26 January 2015 – for more info go to

Vilnius International Jazz Festival: A small place with big ideas

Having grown through the repressive times of the Soviet Union, when foreign artists had to be minibussed from the all-seeing-eye of Moscow to the Lithuanian capital, this festival, now in its 27th edition, does not want for either large, passionate, engaged audiences or adventurous programming. Indeed the rapturous reception given to the generally avantgarde bill at the well-appointed Rusu Dramos Teatras lends weight to the theory that ‘free jazz’ has a sharp resonance for a population that once lived with KGB prisons in its midst.

Japan’s Pre-Cambria Clarinet Quartet and Denmark’s Pierre Dørge & New Jungle Orchestra were two highlights of the event; drawing gasps of admiration and guffaws of laughter in equal measure. The former audaciously blended WSQ and Captain Beefheart and the latter Duke Ellington, Sun Ra, South African township swing and an overall circus sensibility that culminated in the horn players climbing over smiling seated punters in the auditorium. Young Lithuanian multi-reed virtuoso Liudas Mockunas was an impressive guest and he also made a wholly substantial contribution to Finish saxophonist Mikko Innanen’s bold Innkvisitio, an ensemble whose thrash-happy grooves were enhanced by the dazzling warp and weft of Seppo Kantonen’s keys.

Other notable local representation came by way of the young Ornette-influenced quartet Armed Sheep Doom Cloud, a strong contender in the esoteric name stakes. But the Lithuanian musician who really brought the house down was Juozas Milasius (a maverick guitarist extending the lineage of Sharrock, Ulmer and Ducret), who appeared in a fabulous duet with the American alto saxophonistclarinetist Sabir Mateen (both pictured top). Pushing the aesthetic of broken rhythms and tonal distortion to an imaginative and highly focused extreme, Milasius created a sonic minefield upon which Mateen threw his own fortissimo molotovs to great effect, improvising themes of the most wounded, Ayleresque melancholy as his partner gleefully confected a kind of psychoflamenco metal. As if that was not enough there was also the revered figure of Vyacheslav Ganelin leading a Lithuanian/Israeli supergroup and the zestful French brass trio Journal Intime re-imagining the music of Jimi Hendrix. All of which heartily made the point that Vilnius is a small place with big ideas.

– Kevin Le Gendre

– Photo by Antanas Gustys

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.”


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.


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 – 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


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