Quintet-a-Tete and Buck Clayton Legacy Band get Mainstream At The Mill moving

The team at Watermill Jazz in Dorking seem to like mixing the up-and-coming with the well-established when picking bands and performers for their weekly concerts. And that's not to reflect any very particular stance on style – if bands have something to say, then let them be heard seems to be the philosophy. At least, that's the impression conveyed by two recent bookings.

Which brings us, first, to Quintet-a-Tete, trumpeter James Davison (above) and trombonist Callum Au's brand-new group, coupling these resourceful front-liners to a world-class rhythm section with Gabriel Latchin, piano, Misha Mullov-Abbado, bass, and that most impactive of drummers, Matt Skelton. The declared aim of this bright and shiny line-up is to remind audiences of the joyous music recorded by the Clark Terry-Bob Brookmeyer Quintet back in the 1960s. So illustrious shoes to fill but on this evidence, Quintet-a-Tete have made a highly encouraging start on their new pathway, happily culling material from the CT-BB albums while penning nifty new pieces themselves.

Even more important perhaps, this personable young band has the kind of collective joie-de-vivre that relates well to that of their exemplars, communicating disarmingly, with Davison skittish in attack, the arc of his notes sometimes recalling Terry, as he moved from plungered trumpet to flugelhorn and back again. Au, alongside on the valved instrument, gathered strength as the night wore on, his explorations increasingly complex with Latchin impeccable in all his solo opportunities, the clarity of his lines evoking something of Hank Jones or Tommy Flanagan. Clearly a talent to watch as is bassist MM-A, already a forceful presence on the edgier contemporary scene and here combining with the helter-skelter drive of Skelton to often thrilling effect.

Q-a-T opened, reasonably enough, with Terry's 'Tete-a-Tete', before tackling Au's 'Me Time', a contrafact for 'All of Me' with a perky theme, pleasing voicings for the horns and an altogether satisfying resolution. Moving on from these lively riff themes, they calmed down with 'Polka Dots', this revealing Davison's relaxed ballad manner before two rousers in Roger Kellaway's 'Step Right Up and 'The King, hard-swinging, expressive, the rhythm section on heat. More originals, ballad re-workings and peppy re-runs of the Terry-Brookmeyer repertoire signalled a band with purpose who seek to please, this smallish crowd clamouring for [and getting] more. A recording is in the offing; meanwhile, badger your local club to hire them.

Alyn Shipton's Buck Clayton Legacy Band has been around for a while now and attracted a full house a week earlier, opening with their instigator's 'Outer Drive' at full pelt, drummer Bobby Worth, as ever, excelling in achieving swing, the ensemble momentum quite exhilarating. All the band's soloists took their turns, co-leader Mathias Seuffert's early Hawkins tenor style assertive and full-toned, pianist Martin Litton neat and assured. Thereafter, they moved off the expected script and morphed into a Ellington/Hodges tribute band, tackling a number of familiar Ducal specialties with genuine aplomb, Alan Barnes' clarinet on 'Creole Love Call' as intense and yes, as soulful as I can ever remember hearing from him. He was back on alto for his arrangement of 'Three and Six', soaring in ballad mode. Other high notes came with 'C Jam Blues' in the Mel Lewis arrangement and 'Shady Side', also a contrafact, this time by Hodges, which was a slow groover, Barnes again to the fore. The brass team did their stuff well, cornetist Menno Daams always looking for lines that eschewed the obvious in his solo passages. Likeable music, highly accomplished, always creative too. Even so, I could have done with more from their stock-pile of well-made Clayton originals: aren't they what this band is set up to play?

– Peter Vacher (story and photos)

Brown and Flanagan mind their language with buoyant bout of Hastings beat-descendancy


That so many came out to The Stade on a hot and airless night was a tribute to Jazz Hastings and their programme planning, on this occasion presenting an evening of jazz and poetry which appealed to those who recall New Departures of the 1960s and indeed the work of Kenneths Patchen and Rexroth earlier. The John Donaldson Trio – Donaldson (piano), Simon Thorpe (bass) and Winston Clifford (drums) – was fronted first by saxophonist Kevin Flanagan. The purely instrumental numbers, with the exclusion of a fine rendition of Joe Calderazzo's 'Midnight Voyage' which opened the set, seemed slightly lacklustre, as if they were fillers between the pieces with words. Coming from Lowell, Massachusetts, Kerouac's birthplace, is perhaps the reason for Flanagan's interest in the Beat Poets and he conjured up an impression of those with an array of evocative works, well constructed both verbally and musically, with his composition 'Riprap', inspired by the writing of Gary Snydor. The trio's work was sympathetic, with bubbling, mesmeric piano and suitably understated, laidback drumming during Flanagan's recitations, and when the horn joined them, some fine modal playing.

For the second half, Flanagan stood down and poet Pete Brown took frontstage. For those of a certain age, no introduction is necessary. For the uninitiated, a treat is in store by delving into his history. Pinning his colours to the mast from the start, he began with a paean to early jazz artists, notably Clarence Williams, in 'Dreaming the Hours Away'. Making a distinction between poems and lyrics, he read his 'Ballad for the Queen of Outer Space', which he wrote after seeing Zsa Zsa Gabor as an unlikely scientist in the film of that name. (Variety called it "a good-natured attempt to put some honest sex into science-fiction"!) It included many of the characteristics of his art, mixing surreal imagery with sensuality, continually stretching the boundaries of reality, but keeping a rhythmic drive which supports the words and often helps give then greater impact. 'Poem For Bill Evans' followed, with his hat tipped to Mingus' album East Coasting, which was accompanied by Donaldson's appropriate Evans-style piano. Then an excerpt from the darkly pessimistic 'Blues for the Hitchhiking Dead', from the New Departures era, poignantly relevant to current events. Gearbox Records have recently issued the live recording from 1962 with Brown, Michael Horovitz, Stan Tracey and Bobby Wellins, and Brown paid tribute to his friends with 'You And The Night And The Music', making a dedication to Wellins, Flanagan joining for this section.

Inevitably, he mentioned his collaboration with Jack Bruce, as he moved onto what he referred to as his "songs", starting with 'Theme From An Imaginary Western' and including 'The Ballad of Psycho and Delia', a macabre murder ballad from his time with Phil Ryan. These songs were performed with great feeling and intensity, and though his voice strained at times in the upper register, his words seem carved and honed for greatest effect. The performance closed with two songs closely associated with Cream, for which, as he pointed out, he had a good deal of gratitude, as they were possibly the reason why he was living in a house. 'White Room' worked just as well with piano lead rather than guitar, and 'Sunshine of your Love' met with rapturous applause, the strength of the lyrics a reminder of the rich poetic vein they came from.

Matthew Wright

Elling elegantly elliptical at Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Fest


This year's 40th anniversary Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival (EJBF) was a far cry from the inaugural Edinburgh jazz fest back in 1978, a one day, mostly un-ticketed event, which showcased largely UK traditional jazz bands. Shows took place in pubs and at the popular Edinburgh Astoria Ballroom, best known back then for its association with punk and new wave gigs.

It was appropriate that this anniversary year's ambitious 10-day long event looked back to these trad origins, with the likes of the exuberant New Orleans Swamp Donkeys Traditional Jass Band and Jerron 'Blind Boy' Paxton's cheeky blues lyrics and strings skills which wowed the audience. The irrepressible Hypnotic Brass Ensemble and Scotland's own horn-heavy Swampfrog both attracted a youthful audience with their exuberant latter-day take on the New Orleans sound.

Likewise, it was fitting that this year a number of Scottish jazz veterans appeared at EJBF. At the opening gala concert at The Assembly Hall, among a host of big names, the redoubtable Carol Kidd demonstrated that she remains UK's foremost balladeer, her passionate rendition of Billy Joel's 'And So It Goes' particularly impressing. Guitar maestro Martin Taylor gave a masterclass in lucid understatement, while his deep swinging duet with the multi-talented MC for the evening, Seonaid Aitken on violin, transported this reviewer back many decades to Taylor's early days when he toured with Stephane Grappelli. Ever-evolving Scottish saxman Tommy Smith meanwhile offered spacious and technically flawless dreamscapes.

Nevertheless, the main focus of the festival was squarely towards the future, with a somewhat safe but satisfying range of bands from across the globe, together with and a crop of Scottish rising stars. Though there were many highlights, especial mention should be made of Keyon Harrold's intense and almost belligerently socially aware set at the Speigeltent, while the aptly-named Cross Currents Trio offered a set of breathtaking beauty from Dave Holland's double-bass and Zakir Hussain's percussion, as Chris Potter's sax at times evoked shades of Bulgarian clarinet maestro Ivo Papasov. The Zoe Rahman Trio charmed with her lush, classically-informed lyricism, with clear nods to Rahman's dual Bengali/Irish heritage. Meanwhile, Steve Lehman's fluidity on alto-sax within The Vijay Iyer Sextet's east coast complexity and pugilism, was mesmerising. Even the Kurt Elling Quintet strayed far from its origins, baritone Elling even dipping his toe pleasingly close to Phil Minton territory. And for the late-night party-goers, the likes of Italian Rumba de Bodas, cosmopolitan supergroup Bokante, the Ghanaian K.O.G. and Zongo Brigade all gave ample satisfaction.

A swathe of homegrown bands similarly gave hope for the future. Versatile guitarist Graeme Stephen's trio left the packed audience almost sucker-punched from his concentrated, high-energy set at The Jazz Bar. Another Jazz Bar regular, spirited drummer Alyn Cosker and his band, with a more generous time slot, were happily able to dip extensively into Cosker's latest fusion release, KPF. At the late-night Teviot Row Festival Club, vibrant bands Fat-Suit and Werkha gave the audience something to dance about, while distinguished Scottish jazzers, pianist Brian Kellock and saxophonists Laura Macdonald, Martin Kershaw and Phil Bancroft, each delivered their customary first-rate sets. Meanwhile, pianist Fergus McCreadie, bassist Mark Hendry and 2018 Scottish Jazz Awards 'Rising Star' award-winner vocalist Lucca Manning, and their bands, all demonstrated an ability belying their tender years. All deserve close watch and lend confidence that Scottish jazz is in good hands over the next 40 years of the EJBF.

Fiona Mactaggart 
Photo by Sandy Blair 

Esther Swift fleet of folk at Manchester Jazz Fest


The 'MJF originals' are a lifeline to artistry, like most music festival commissions, and this year they handed the chance to Esther Swift (pictured far right) to entwine her folk, classical and jazz roots with a statement ensemble of strings, brass, piano, drums and four harps. A rare sight that immediately engaged. Throughout, the delicacy and sweetness associated with harps had an edge created by short repetitive refrains, the four in precise unison. Sometimes their physical scraping of the strings or clawing was a like a dance, the effect mesmerising, and the quality of vibration was, well, heavenly. Cannily, Esther, had piano, sax and trombone to bring earthly dimensions, though the latter was often played with supreme delicacy, as were the drums; there and not there, uniting the sound without dominating it.

The trio of violin, viola and cello added stretches of bowing and energy or heightened the emotion. This was Esther's skill, to imagine such a combination of instruments, allowing each to shine in its own style, then transitioning to a different viewpoint. The sax would walk a line talking to itself, or the trombone would have a deep and dirty blow, then the harps would sparkle alone, switching the mood. The changes were smooth like low, soft waves pulling in, then fading out. Esther's seven-movement work blossomed out of poetry by fellow Scot, Carol Ann Duffy, whose DNA seems to spiral together magical star-spray and concrete realness. Duffy's words from poems such as 'Art' sounded best when Esther speak-sings with a 'Björk-ian' clarity; her high-pitched vocals annunciated the sentiments of the 'Light Gatherer' perfectly. And she had a very warm standing ovation for her efforts.

I was part of a panel discussion afterwards when Esther spoke of her ensemble's unwavering support in this project, and the issues facing female composers. Chaired by Vanessa Reed of the PRS Foundation, the central topic was their Keychange initiative that asks festivals to programme an equal male/female split of band leaders by 2022. Manchester Jazz Festival has signed up and there were seemed plenty of chances to check female talent this year.

I know vocalist Elina Duni well, and was keen to hear her new duo with guitarist Rob Luft. Born in Albania and singing in public since she was about five years old, it's Duni's arrangement of songs that sets her apart, whether it's a traditional such as 'Vaj Si Kenka' or Serge Gainsbourg's 'Couleur Café'. She has a jazz sensibility infused in her delivery, sometimes she'll even use rhythmical scatting, but then she will hold a high porcelain-like note, that seems to stop time; a cry that feels ancient and completely relevant in the same moment. Luft's electric-guitar style and looping suits it well, shimmering and delicate, extending the sentiment of songs such as the Celtic 'The Water is Wide' and I particularly liked their version of 'Wayfaring Stranger', well known as a Johnny Cash track. Duni's intonation on the lyric: "I'm going there to see my Father" was a beautiful balance of heartache and assertion. Whatever the language, a Portuguese fado or Baltic folk, there is a deliciousness to Duni's singing of words and use of accents. There was much light in the performance, and in the setting of St Ann's Church, even in the sadness there was a sense of romance. As Elina explained, Baltic songs express joy and pain, side by side, and the mournful notes led into a rhythmic groove and warmth that she has established with Luft.

Luft also appeared with his band Big Bad Wolf on the festival square's stage. They take indie, pop rock and a touch of jazz, melting them in a tasty toastie that would be welcome at any festival. There is a vulnerability to their sound, especially when Owen Dawson sings or plays a melodic bar on his trombone, as on their new track 'Butterfly'. Luft and bassist Michael de Souza also deliver vocals with a gentle, uncertain tone but, like drummer Jay Davis, they all play with great ability and unity, creating a place for themselves that feels sort of fresh, and avoids horrible jazz clichés altogether.

On the same stage, Umbra from Dublin conveyed the rock influences that guitarist Chris Guilfoyle picked up journeying the west coast of America and Canada. Set in a more obvious jazz context, drummer Matt Jacobsen was able to address any style asked of him, while there was animated interplay between saxophonists Sam Comerford and Chris Engel. The latter, originally from Cape Town, stabbed out one solo with great verve and heat.

Debra Richards
– Photo by Manc Wanderer

The Viljandi Variations: Kevin Le Gendre finds a lot more than folk music at one of Estonia's premier festivals


Parimusmuusika, the sub-title of this joyous festival is translated from Estonian as 'folk music'. However, the wide range of artists on the bill shows how much genres blur. During four action-packed days in the bejewelled Baltic town of Viljandi, where as many as 25,000 visitors swell the population by some margin, there are dozens of groups who fit the standard profile of 'roots' ensembles. Accordions, fiddles, jew's harps and bagpipes are to be heard at regular intervals yet there are also irregular time signatures, challenging harmony and the daring improvisation that pertains to the jazz aesthetic. It is the Estonian artists who provide highlights in this respect, and the Tormis Quartet, featuring master guitarist Jaak Sooäär and vocalist Kadri Voorand, both familiar faces at the Jazzkaar festival in Tallinn, is simply majestic. Their interpretation of the works of Veljo Tormis, a renowned 20th century choral composer, generates enough warmth from a large audience to rival the heatwave currently sizzling through most of Europe. Compelling, unusually shaped melodies are given adequately expressive textures by Sooäär's wily battery of electronics, while second guitarist Paul Daniel brings understated, undulating rhythmic accompaniment to enhance the harmonizing of Voorand and fellow vocalist Liisi Koikson.

If Nordic folk songs have been a staple source material for many ECM artists then Tormis is an equally fertile kind of stimulus for fresh modernity grown from a deep tradition, which is further bolstered by the arrival of the Ja Ellerhein Girls Choir. This makes for a spectacle that is as touching as it is sonically intriguing, and the collisions of old and new are also heard in performances by Mari Kalkun and Tintura, the former combining voice, kannel (zither), vibraphone and percussion, and the latter voice, violin, double-bass and drum programming to bewitching effect, reflecting a grasp of the dynamics of hip hop, as well as folk music and improvisation.

Established 26 years ago, Viljandi has a pedigree among festivals that can be ascribed to the beauty of the setting, as well as the quality of the line-up. The bulk of the concerts take place in the ruins of an old castle, whose drained moat has created a sensationally picturesque valley that sweeps down to a long and winding road. The biggest of the outdoor stages offers a breathtaking panorama of a shimmering lake. While these surroundings are remarkable, the town of Viljandi itself has immense charm, as cobbled streets, wooden houses, and small yards offer a soothing calm that is hard to find in a sprawling metropolis such as London. In this centenary of Estonian independence a burgh like this is a good advert for a quality of life that flows into the generally celebratory ambience of the festival, which is very family friendly. Yet the sharp melancholy of some of the music also resonates with Estonia's tragic past under Russian rule. Siberia is credited as the source of some of Tintura's songs, and it was in one of its prison camps that August Maraama, Viljandi's boldly progressive major, ended his days after being arrested and deported by Soviet authorities in 1941.

Hence the sight of black, white and blue flags and civic pride that pervades most of the concerts makes a great deal of sense. Estonian Voices, the a cappella sextet led by the aforementioned Voorand, whose blend of jazz, folk and classical has attracted large audiences right across Europe captures that feeling as well as any other group. Arrangements that play artfully on the contrasting characters of the singers – the two sopranos Mirjam Dede and Maria Vali and tenor Mikk Dede all impress – are excellent and the harmonising is rich throughout. An orchestra, or rather orkestar, with a more raucous energy is Macedonia's Kadrievi, who elicit delirium and dancing in an audience that cannot resist the relentlessly swirling gypsy rhythms drawn from Eastern Europe and oriental sources. An octet with a mighty bottom-end provided by the bombardon (bass tuba), the group has the explosive character of a funky New Orleans marching band, and like its American counterpart, the standard of playing is high. As for Niger's Bombino, they play a storming desert blues not unlike Tinariwen, in which vocalist–guitarist Goumour Almoctar lays down rugged solos.

Energy levels are kept up in the closing gala concert by Viljandi's artistic director Ando Kiviberg, who invites a few dozen groups on stage to play bite-sized sets to remind the audience of what they have had the chance to enjoy over the sun-soaked weekend. Georgian vocal group Debi Gogochurebi steals the show with its rapturous polyphony, but it is Kiviberg's nifty shape-shifting – he sings one minute, plays pipes and double-bass the next – that is a potent encapsulation of traditions in transition.

Kevin Le Gendre

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