Monty Alexander, Kenny Garrett and Ginger Baker at stellar Montreal Jazz Festival 2014

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The 35th Montreal Jazz spectacular offered what it always does, opportunity and encouragement to hook up the A-team, whatever project is in the works, show us its optimal incarnation. 

Beyond the blockbuster shows of Diana Krall and newbies Vintage Trouble, this was a boon to several stalwart bandleaders. Perhaps the most genial of these were Dr Lonnie Smith and Monty Alexander. The Turbanator, Dr Smith, fronted a crack octet, with five horns brought together by altoist Ian Hendrickson-Smith, including snakily soulful tenorist/bass clarinettist John Ellis. This organic, yet tight section (no pesky music to read) was anchored by the badass beats of Jonathan Blake and succinct guitarist Ed Cherry, with the doctor handling bass duties with his boots. 

Smith does the minimum to elicit the maximum, is always spontaneous and revels in showcasing his musicians. His double late night set at Gesu crescenodoed with a new schtick, wacking out basslines on his custom slaparoo walking stick whilst prerambulating through the wowed crowd. 

Two nights later at the same venue veteran entertainer Monty Alexander held sway with a similarly ambitious crew. His Harlem-Kingston Express is a unique yoking of jazz and reggae, twinning stylistically respective drummers Obed Calvaire and Karl Wright and acoustic/electric bassists Hassan Shakur and Courtney Panton. At a signal from Alexander at the piano the deftly acoustic cocktail jazz half of the band cut abruptly, letting the reggae boys drop. Alexander was as mercurial as ever but announced bluntly at the end of the set, “That’s all folks!” and hastily walked offstage. Blaming strong Canadian coffee for overpowering him, he eventually returned with “What de hell!” and launched in to a bonus number. Turns out he suffered a mild heart attack and spent the following day in hospital getting checked out, though no-one would have known from his merry yodel of goodbye after the encore. 

The differing feel of jazz and reggae drums is made salient in the Harlem-Kingston Express but veteran Jamaican drummer Wright, who’d otherwise dutifully installed the groove like Monty’s sometime colleague Sly Dunbar, exploded on cue with a solo finale to the evening. Talking of Sly himself, wearing a workman’s hat behind the kit, he and Robbie Shakespeare had opened for Burning Spear the night before at Metropolis, letting frontman (and tour manager) Peter Gayle croon with such fare as Stevie Wonder’s tearjerker ‘Lately’, while they plied trademark riddims in back.

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Ginger performs gingerly

Dropping flamboyant (double flam) beats, with his own health travails, was Ginger Baker, who played a low key yet big scale show with his Jazz Confusion quartet featuring bassist Alec Dankworth at Theatre Maisonneuve. Check Wikipedia for Baker’s copious drum specs and imagine assorted music shops along his tour route amassing his arsenal, as he himself travels light (not a polo pony in sight). Not too much of his impressive rig with requisite twin bass drums was deployed when he took a first solo, and its bombast bore no relevance to the rest of the music, it was as clumsy as a teenager clobbering buckets in the street. However by the end of the concert (notwithstanding a five minute intermission – he kept prefacing the more demanding 12/8 grooves with, “this one is the Baker killer”), Ginger’s synch with Ghanaian percussionist Abass Dodoo became steadily mesmerising.

Those familiar with Tony Palmer’s 1971 documentary Ginger Baker in Africa will dig that the trance like continuum of Fela’s grooves left an indelible stamp on the journeyman drum hero. The legacy of such quintessential experience made trots through ‘Footprints’ and ‘St Thomas’ sound positively bourgeois. Preferable were vehicles that telescoped his African adventures, such as ‘Ain Temouchant’ which Baker told us commemorates a location in the Atlas Mountains where “with, great aplomb, I drove my car at very high speed off the mountain – into an olive tree.”

Pointing a drumstick at Pee Wee Ellis, Baker taunted defiantly “He’ll probably die first!” Ellis, sitting on a stool, proved the perfect compliment to the arthritic Baker. Admirably lean and to the point, the dry James Brown alum took sensible forays into the upper register and, beyond winking gratuities – like slipping in the horn line to ‘Cold Sweat’ – played with more jazzy logic than expected.

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Side-women have it

Sideman saxophonists were notable at this year’s Montreal, and let’s amend that to sidewomen, because Sharel Cassity more than pulled her weight in an allstar (if strangely unscheduled) septet featuring Tommy Campbell, Cyrus Chesnut and Terell Stafford, opening for Aretha Franklin. Multi instrumentalist Scheila Gonzalez (above) was also amazing, building her tenor solo with all the soul/virtuosity of Ronnie Laws/Ernie Watts on ‘Peaches in Regalia’ with Dweezil Zappa’s six-piece Zappa Plays Zappa group at Metropolis (she bagged an instrumental Grammy for such a performance in 2009 by the by). 

Another tenor playing sidekick, Timothy McFatter, was exhorted to take it higher by Troy Andrews and duly did during Trombone Shorty (below) and Orleans Avenue’s incendiary ‘Fire and Brimstone’ return engagement at Metropolis. Also, uncredited local ringer Andre Leroux, buried in the ranks of her backing orchestra, blew an outstanding solo behind an appreciative Aretha Franklin. 

Choice gigs at Theatre Jean Duceppe, Cinquieme Salle and Club Soda

Beyond Aretha Franklin's nostalgia fest at Salle Wilfrid Pelletier, the most memorable version of 'Say A Little Prayer' was delivered by the superbly athletic Kenny Garrett Quintet. Garrett hypnotised Theatre Jean Duceppe on 1 July, with his whinnying soprano and throat singing-in-tongues mantra ‘Pushing the World Away’, the eponymous cut from his intense Mack Avenue CD, which wins my vote for tune title of the year.

Cinquieme Salle, something of a smaller version of Gesu, that often hosts theatrical asides to the main programming, has been a welcome addition to the serious jazz roster recently and was the ideal room to host Randy Weston in duo with scrappy tenor firebrand Billy Harper. Weston doesn’t like to work too hard – transporting his massive six foot eight frame around at age 88 is surely work enough – but he dispensed fresh sagacities over his well oiled perennials ‘Little Niles’ and ‘High Fly’ as Harper dug for other profundities. It was welcome to hear more expressionistic playing amid all the buttoned up virtuosi prevalent at the festival. 

Though my favorite oasis - because of the venue’s cabaret informality and approximate hit times - schedule clashes dragged me away from Club Soda too early on several occasions. I caught only a smidgin (though enough to get the gist) of Tuareg bluesman Omar “Bombino” Moctar, who was nice to hear without the reverb Dan Auerbach likes to shower over the Nonesuch CDs he produces, and not much more of Jose James, Blue Note’s suspiciously good looking darling whose lyrics – “Come to me baby/Love me tonight/Stay with me angel/Rest of my life” – failed to convince. 

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More compelling were gravel voiced Piedmont blues revisionist Guy Davis, who won over with his crowd pleasing harmonica feature ‘Did You See My Baby?’ and better still, the unclassifiable Benjamin Clementine, who, shrouded in darkness onstage announced “I am alone in a box of stone,” thence delivering his (in attempt to classify) spellbinding phantom-of-the-opera-meets-Screamin’ Jay Hawkins rendition of “Cornerstone.”

Time will tell whether Clementine makes the cut for a return engagement at this festival famed for record breaking attendances, where the basic requirement is that you are not only brilliant, but bums-on-seats brilliant.

– Michael Jackson (Story and photos)

 

Theo Parrish dancing to his own beat at Barbican

House is synonymous with dance. The natural successor to disco and the co-conspirator of techno, the genre is intended to obey a time-honoured impulse in African-American culture – ‘you gotta get up to get down’ – instead of observing the more detached stance of the ‘head nod’, or indeed ‘the profile’ that is largely prevalent in hip-hop.

Interviewed by Josey Rebelle for Time Out prior to this gig, Theo Parrish, a Detroit artist whose Sound Signature catalogue has made him a seminal name in house, made this important point. “People don't know how to dance anymore.” If that was a blunt denunciation of a certain self-consciousness if not confected uber-cool that effectively restricts people from really feeling house music then Parrish addressed the malaise within moments of leading a stellar ensemble – Amp Fiddler [keys], Duminie De Porres [guitar], Akwasi Mensah [bass], Myele Manzanza [drums] – on stage for this sold-out performance. He told assembled fans that his ultimate goal was unity. To that end they had to see their seats as springboards rather than cushions.

A few songs later the crowd duly complied, but it was more than just the beauty of the music that prompted the response to Parrish’s call. His master stroke was to include in his ensemble four brilliant dancers who essentially acted as additional band members, capturing the kinesis of the beat and throwing it back to the audience by way of choreography that blended a sharp pop ‘n’ lock thrust with the looser, more fluid upswing of jazz dance. Just a week before this gig bassist Mensah had performed The Dynamics Of Perception, a brilliant live soundtrack at the Purcell room that also built a bridge between music and dance on film, and this gig seemed to be an uncanny and logical extension of that premise. It was fascinating to see how much the dancers completely led the audience, raising its energy levels time and again with a virtuosic step just as the climax of a piano improvisation can draw a sharp intake of breath from any truly attentive listener.  

Dancer as soloist may have implied jazz, but Parish’s arrangements and musical sensibilities made an entirely explicit application thereof. Any number of songs, particularly ‘Top Of The World’, ‘Chemistry’ and ‘Solitary Flight’, had the kind of harmonic framework of the hallowed 1970s fusion lexicon a la Herbie-Lonnie-Ubiquity, perhaps more pared down to up the rhythmic charge, all the while leaving ample pace for the likes of Fiddler, De Porres and Manzanza to fully extemporize. Particularly impressive was the way that the latter wove fine patchworks of syncopation around the primal 4/4 kick drum pulse, displaying a lightness of touch on the sticks and tympani mallets that brought additional layers to the percussive base of the music. Parrish himself played slinky keys and a sexily squelched-out moog bass, making the point that many progressive producers – think 4-Hero, I.G Culture, Stacey Pullen to name a few – are musicians as well as soundscapers, and that their formative references place Quincy Jones alongside Larry Heard.        

To a great extent, the major clue to the grand cultural sweep of Parrish’s world was the understated quote of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Too High’ that acted as a bed for his opening address to the audience. When one thinks of Wonder’s history – his development of Ray Charles’ soul; his immersion in the worlds of Ellington, Gershwin, the Beatles and John Coltrane; his creation of an advanced electronica and proto-Techno in the ‘70s that is still enormously relevant today – it is clear that the piece could not have been a mo’ better scene-setter.  

Then again the appearance of Parrish’s two vocalists, Ideeyah and Chalin Barton, sealed the Stevie deal insofar as they brought to the table the gospel energy at the epicenter of Parrish’s musical universe, underling the presence of the black church and the essence of congregation that underscore his appearances both as a club DJ and a concert hall bandleader.

If country preachers played no small part in the Civil Rights struggle then guitarist De Porres kept that political gospel connection alive when he recited a list of fallen freedom fighters, from Nat Turner to Fred Hampton, before launching into his most searing wah wah eruption of the night. That said, those with an open mind would have also seen that there was an immense historical dimension to this event. By bringing together jazz musicians, dancers, singers and great songs, Parrish was actually presenting an imaginative update of the heritage of Detroit: a Motown Revue for the millennium. The icing on the cake was the appearance of a British horn section, trumpeter Jay Phelps and tenor saxophonist Ray Carless. Their sweet, soaring brass had an unseated audience walking through the sky. Landmark gig from a monumental artist.     

– Kevin Le Gendre

– Photo by Egle Trezzi

 

Akwasi Mensah kicking it like Bruce Lee at Purcell Room

This superlative live soundtrack was a highlight of the PRSF/South Bank Centre initiative ‘New Music Biennial’, which presented 20 brand new compositions across a wide range of genres. Bunny Bread’s short film The Dynamics Of Perception, an imaginative burst of neo-noir that referenced the ballet-like finesse of Bruce Lee movies, unfurled a set of startling images for which Mensah provided a richly layered score. Known primarily as a bassist who straddles the borders of jazz, broken beat and electronica, Mensah proved himself a composer-arranger of considerable creative depth in this context.

Furthermore, his ensemble had an impressive pedigree: original Jazz Warriors, tenor saxophonist Ray Carless and pianist Adrian Reid as well as the somewhat underrated trumpeter Kevin Davy were joined by guitar, balaphone, percussion, drums and bass guitar to create an array of glowing timbral colours that contrasted potently with the shadowy, edgy monochrome on screen. Though the core sound was a form of driving Afro-funk that produced an intensely physical sound in precise sync with the bracing rhythmic content of the choreography on celluloid, Mensah also elicited much light and shade from his players, directing them towards passages of understatement and restraint that were a strong counterpoint to the visual stimulus. Ultimately, the music managed to imply the psychological and emotional states of the characters as well as reinforce their eye-catching kinetic energy.

For a project of this nature to work the split second precision of the edited images has to be matched by the cohesion and responsiveness of the stage performers. With that in mind it was hugely impressive to see Mensah conduct without a score and instead lock his eyes on the screen, absorb the stream of information and convey that to his musicians so effectively that Bread’s sharp cuts acted almost as on and offbeats in the various movements of the score. Commissioned by Jazz Re:Freshed, a west London scene where improvised music and other genres speak a common language, this was a vital demonstration of how engrossing can be a focused dialogue between sound and image.    


– Kevin Le Gendre      

 

Kit Packham’s One Jump Ahead jiving at the Hideaway


The ultra-stylish Kit Packham’s One Jump Ahead band is now 30 years old. For this Sunday afternoon gig at the award-winning Hideaway, they performed a rollicking set of songs ranging from 1940s and 1950s jump/jive, R&B and classic rock ‘n’ roll, to jazz standards and originals, featuring the band’s core seven-piece line-up: Bandleader and composer, Kit Packham on saxophones and lead vocal, Steve Knight on guitar, Perry White on piano, Alex Keen on double bass, Kenrick Rowe on drums, Tracey Mendham on saxophones and vocals, and Simon Da Silva on trumpet and flugelhorn. Striking in a blue pinstripe suit and fedora, Packham resembled Frank Sinatra, and he introduced numbers in a clear and informative way. They opened with one of the band’s original tunes, ‘Swing It’, which immediately propelled people to the dance floor.

Endearingly, many of Packham’s songs are inspired by people close to him, such as jump-jive number, ‘When I Was In France With Frances’ with its infectious energy heightened by White’s standout twirly fills on piano. The gemstone stood at the centre of the band was the very entertaining sole female, Mendham. Her tenor saxophone solo during swinging jazz standard, ‘Alright, Okay, You Win’, had a stirring, unshowy ease about it, supported by the ramped-up attack of Keen’s walking bass. Knight’s electric guitar sounded unusual played on a jazz standard, but it worked. In their seriously cool dance shoes and fascinating ties, the band demonstrated their neat dance moves throughout Fats Domino rock ‘n’ roll number, ‘My Girl Josephine’, with its brass riffs and White’s bluesy piano singing over the top.

They slowed things down with popular song, ‘Manhattan’ by Rodgers and Hart, for which Packham had written some alternative lyrics and based it closer to home, in South London. The audience belly laughed at comic lines such as, “At Crystal Palace, we’ll spray a phallus on the wall,” offset by the sophistication of Da Silva’s flugelhorn solo, and were startled by a realistically simulated gunshot by otherwise quietly professional Rowe on drums. The happiness emanating from the whole room was palpable during Louis Jordan song, ‘Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby’, to which ardent fans danced in ballroom formation.

The band’s perky theme tune, ‘One Jump Ahead’, contained one of Packham’s signature, impactful abrupt endings and deadpan Knight added even more colour to the act by performing a nose flute solo on The Blues Brothers classic, ‘Minnie the Moocher’. White nailed a stunning boogie-woogie piano solo punctuated by thrillingly deep bass notes from Mendham on baritone saxophone on ‘Choo Choo Ch’Boogie’, and they even managed to squeeze in a world premiere featuring Vera Lynn’s World War II song, ‘We’ll Meet Again’: Loosely named ‘The Last Song Of The Set’, it cleverly welded an old song onto a new one. Eventually the two tunes overlapped, bringing the gig to an impressive end. The time flew; a sure sign that Kit Packham’s One Jump Ahead with its thoroughly well-written arrangements and heartfelt blend of comedy and music, had done a fine job of bringing this classy joint to life.

– Gemma Boyd (story and photo)

 

Dennis Rollins and Courtney Pine crown glorious Glasgow Jazz Fest

Last year’s Glasgow Jazz Festival finished with a desolately sad Bobby Wellins filling the Sunday slot he was meant to headline with Stan Tracey, who had cancelled that morning, the cancer which would kill him, we now know, just beginning to bite. This year by contrast felt like a celebration of jazz’s bright variety, from Courtney Pine to Evan Parker.

The Neil Cowley Trio showcased their Touch and Flee album months in advance of their UK tour to a large crowd, amidst the Victorian ironwork of City Halls’ atmospheric Old Fruitmarket. Though Touch and Flee tunes allowed moments of reflection, the Trio remain a mighty rhythm section, with complexities left simmering on the edges of regular, nimbly thunderous riffs. Berserker-bearded bassist Rex Horan wrung his hands more than once, as Cowley drove his ring-rusty men to their limit. ‘She Flies’ Indian-style drumming began an especially slow build, settling into faint splashes of sound, before Cowley’s jarringly unbalanced solo, like someone limping awkwardly on one gammy leg, levitated him from his seat with its blistering energy, Evan Jenkins responding with a silvery blur of drums.

A frustratingly packed Thursday bill required running from Cowley to catch Sons of Kemet’s finish in the underground, pop-up Rio club, where Shabaka Hutchings’ clarinet and Theon Cross’ tuba conducted a softly intimate dialogue. The night’s late-night Rio jam saw straight hard bop of increasing quality from pianist Steve Hamilton, trumpeter Tom MacNiven and trombonists Phil O’Malley and Kevin Garrity, which Kemet drummer Seb Rochford sat in on with surprising pleasure. Never breaking the straight-ahead mould, he added whiplash force and facility. The wry smile, which often seems about to cross his sombrely introspective face, did so broadly, on this busman’s holiday from the cutting edge.

Thursday also saw Christine Tobin’s take on Leonard Cohen songbook, catching ‘Take This Waltz’’s Old European sadness and rapture, though the mood was handicapped by the Scottish sun surprisingly blazing through the windows. Friday also saw Glaswegian Leo Condie’s thrilling embodiment of the songs of (mostly) Brel and Brecht, his voice vaulting from a body clenched in hapless fury at extravagant injustice. Jacqui Dankworth and Todd Gordon were meanwhile singing Sinatra and Fitzgerald tunes in The Frank and Ella Show, in City Halls’ Grand Hall. Scotland’s National Swing Orchestra were equally adept at a small-group Sinatra medley as at ‘New York, New York’, while Dankworth nailed Ella’s famous scat on ‘How High the Moon’. The pensionable crowd’s deep satisfaction and the songs’ timeless verity justified the nostalgic concept.

Saturday night’s theme was Jamaica’s influence on jazz. The Dennis Rollins Velocity Trio, perhaps taken for granted on the London circuit, connected hard with a Mod-minded crowd at the Rio. ‘Symbiosis’, from their next album, was blaring soul-jazz, building excitement from an exploration of the band’s working parts, while a cover of ‘Money’ introduced Pink Floyd to the notion of the groove. Rollins’ personable style was multiplied by Courtney Pine, who noted that he’d “never been asked to represent the country of my parents’ birth before.” He played a cricketer’s forward-defensive stroke with his soprano sax, but there was no blocking here. His regular ‘Smile/Take Five’ solo exploded into steaming reggae-jazz fusion, and if shape and detail were sometimes lost in his band’s speeding streams of notes, Pine’s equally ceaseless energy and massive heart conquered the crowd. Zara McFarlane was meanwhile triumphing back at the Rio, her voice’s charismatic high cresting and low purr riding a great band. Sweaty, shaven-headed tenor sax Binker Golding’s impetuously intense, bulleting modal bursts ramped up the energy. As McFarlane was roared back for an encore, Golding had already switched gigs to Jazz Jamaica, who got a disappointingly small post-Pine, late-night crowd dancing hard.

The Tom MacNiven/Phil O’Malley Quintet, a new hard bop line-up partly glimpsed jamming earlier, were a warmly comforting way to ease into Sunday at the Tron Theatre’s dark-wooded back bar. The packed tables told of Glasgow’s taste for familiar jazz pleasures, which the festival fully caters for. But in a city poised for profound change in September, Evan Parker’s enduring radicalism also drew a crowd. In an interview preceding a solo gig and one with the Glasgow Improvisers’ Orchestra in his 70th year, he suggested Scotland had been independent since the Poll Tax riots. “People are more politically aware,” he said of Glaswegians in comparison to England, “and have resisted the stupidities of the current regime.” Free jazz’s values stood in stark contrast: “Mutual respect. Egalitarianism. A desire to be a social being.” There would, he wryly noted, “be an opportunity to vote for me later”.

The solo set included moments of slowed suspense, developing into car-horn attack. Sitting on the floor, something shifted in my ears as the sound-waves hit harder, while the folk feeling behind much classical music was hinted at by these rapidly improvised, sometimes indistinct solo symphonies. Parker was still going when I ran for the train. The sun was still out, and I was sated.    

– Nick Hasted

 

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