Matthew Halsall Gondwana Orchestra raise spirits at The House of St. Barnabas

The House of St. Barnabas
is one of Soho’s secret corners: a Georgian townhouse with a Victorian chapel whose turrets look far older, and more suited to the neighbourhood’s French heritage, it has been devoted to the poor since Victorian times. Ex-Straight No Chaser editor Paul Bradshaw, introducing the first of three summer jazz gigs in the chapel, remembers it as a halfway house for the homeless. It says something for changing times that the homeless are helped more indirectly now, with St. Barnabas no longer a literal house for them in increasingly exclusive Soho, but a non-profit members’ club, which funds education for the homeless. The chapel’s partly candlelit, marble-walled, beautiful intimacy is still an ideal home for Matthew Halsall & The Gondwana Orchestra’s spiritual jazz.

Tonight’s set is almost wholly drawn from Halsall’s just-released fourth album, When The World Was One. The exception is opener ‘Music For A Dancing Mind’, led off by keyboardist Taz Modi’s rippling gospel-blues riffs, which settle into a hushed, swaying, two-note rhythm alongside Gavin Barras’ bass, as drummer Matt Davies (standing in for the album’s Luke Flowers) rattles the sides of his kit, echoing in the church. Halsall, in T-shirt and military-style cap, is too bashful to truly take centre-stage, but his Miles-recalling mournfulness on trumpet does end with a clarion cry.

The general Gondwana sound is, though, restfully contemplative, meant for the slowing, not racing, pulse. Just as Halsall’s previous album, Fletcher Moss Park, was inspired by the titular place of meditative sanctuary in his native Manchester, so When The World Was One began with his travels in Japan. Keiko Kitamura’s presence on koto (a high-strung, long wooden instrument) adds an element of authenticity to ‘Kiyozimu-Dera’, named after one of Japan’s oldest Buddhist temples. More importantly, the dry, almost clacking, entwined vibrations of the koto’s strings are a sound of surprise as they hang in the air. Kitamura’s solo to end the first set transfixes the crowd.

GondwanaOrchestra02Before that, a touch of funk bass from the early ‘70s – the Gondwana Orchestra’s touchstone era – begins ‘Falling Water’. Then Jordan Smart’s sinuously circular soprano sax phrases and a comforting Halsall solo characteristically fall away in favour the slow ripple and rustle of brushed drums, bass and Rachael Gladwin’s harp (pictured).

The harp’s presence is one nod to a major Halsall heroine, name-checked on ‘A Tribute to Alice Coltrane’, in which the band’s pacific waves lap at a languid spiritual jazz centre. They occasionally remember to kick things up, too. Smart abandons his hypnotic sax sway to blaze through a blur of notes on ‘Sagano Bamboo Forest’, where Halsall’s mute gives a dirty, wah-wah rasp, and Kitamura plucks a torrent of bent notes one-handed. ‘Patterns’ is another tune where Halsall finds fire to contrast with the liquid flow, before sinking and shrinking into a hunch-shouldered finish. His fingers flicker over the valves on ‘Jura’. Then he finds a lonesome, soulful tone for the hip, almost Brubeckian urban bustle of ‘When The World Was One’, where Smart briefly blows at his hottest.

Humility, beauty and melodic clarity are the goals of all this virtuosity, letting the mind float free while the head gently nods. With a crucified Christ suspended directly above the band as they play these Buddhist-inflected, black American-indebted sounds, we’ve been taken to a very broad church.

– Nick Hasted

– Tom Oldham (photos)

The Journey to the One Summer Jazz series continues at The House of St. Barnabas with Sun Ra 100 With the London Art Collective on 7 July


Elaine Delmar Commanding and Cool at Crazy Coqs

You just know when a performer and a venue are meant for each other. The vivacious jazz singer Elaine Delmar came into London’s Crazy Coqs on Tuesday and took charge right away, successfully kicking off a return five-night run. It may be a truism, indeed a cliché, but Ms Delmar is a class act and Crazy Coqs is a classy room – see what I mean about the right artist in the right place? And that’s not just my view for this packed audience loved every stylish minute of Elaine’s 90-minute set. Unflagging yet intimate, heartfelt but humorous, every song given its due, theatrical when necessary, subtle or brazen, she held us rapt, a veteran whose stagecraft and sheer vocal fizz are unique and wonderful.

Her ‘songs gathered along the way’, 21 in all, many time-honoured, came together in a deftly constructed programme, balancing drama with playful innocence. Elaine’s jazz feel came good on ‘Sunny Side of the Street’, taken at pace, her variations on the melody starting softly like a tenor saxophone solo, the vocal tone billowing and building to a storming finish before she signed off with a whisper. Later, it was a version of ‘Summertime’, with just Simon Thorpe’s bass for company, each note like a gem ahead of Thorpe’s impressive solo, that stayed in the mind. And that’s another facet of this lady’s talent, the ability to move seamlessly, say, from an understated, delicate version of ‘Killing Me Softly’ into a roaring ‘Mad Dogs and Englishman’, Coward’s tricky lyrics carried off with aplomb, as pianist-MD Brian Dee cut and pasted a nifty accompaniment.  

Never knowingly monochrome, Elaine’s interpretations have an almost painterly quality, deep chrome notes followed by piercingly bright flourishes, and sudden Sarah Vaughan-like swoops into that honeyed, low cello register. Yes, Elaine Delmar has it all, her peerless vocal quality matched by carefully-honed interpretative skills. To use an overworked phrase yet again, she’s a national treasure and deserves to be heard. Get down to the Crazy Coqs and prepare for a feast of vocal pleasure.

– Peter Vacher

An evening with Elaine Delmar continues nightly at the Crazy Coqs until Saturday 21 June


Simon Spillett setting the Standard at Lauderdale House

You can’t fault tenor-saxophonist Simon Spillett for his dedication to the music. He creates bands, employs the finest musicians and regularly turns in performances that stand comparison with the best of British modern jazz. What’s more, he’s an able historian with a biography of Tubby Hayes in the offing. He also took the late Tubby as his musical exemplar ages ago, absorbed the best of Hank Mobley and Sonny Stitt along the way, and now pours his apparently unquenchable energies into a new quintet, known as Standard Miles.

With Highgate’s congenial Lauderdale House as their backdrop and with an audience avid for it all, Spillett’s fellow luminaries included trumpeter Henry Lowther, pianist John Critchinson, bassist Dave Green and drummer Trevor Tomkins, every man in commanding form. Their intention was to take a celebratory canter through pieces associated with Davis, concentrating on, as the band name implies, show songs and familiar originals with a Davis association, re-casting each in their own distinctive fashion and my, how well they succeeded.  

The opening trumpet exposition on ‘Stella by Starlight’ set the tone, every note a gem, their placements punctuated by sudden flurries and quicksilver darts, this emphasising just how valuable a player Lowther is, before Spillett’s tenor burst in, bleary-eyed yet urgent, Tomkins’ cymbal beat as springy as could be as Critch turned the harmonies around. Then came ‘If I Were A Bell’, HL Harmon-muted and anchored tight in to the mike, Spillett pillaging the harmonies as the rhythm section grooved. Lowther then took Harry Warren’s seldom-heard ‘Summer Night’ for an ambulatory jaunt, solo with the trio, those characteristically plaintive long notes again earning a collective sigh of appreciation. ‘Seven Steps to Heaven’ always works, Green handling the bass ostinato and Tomkins soloing at length, without bombast or meaningless clatter, before the first-half highlight, ‘No Blues’ which roared and soared like the proverbial runaway train, Tomkins varying accents to suit every situation. Marvellous.

How better to start the second half than with ‘Green Dolphin Street’, with Critch wrenching new meaning from those familiar chords, as Spillett and Lowther shared the solo space. Critch’s trio version of ‘Baby Won’t You Please Come Home’ used Victor Feldman’s voicings, a feat that he seemed to imply might be akin to climbing Mount Everest in plimsolls but which nonetheless, he turned into a triumph. Naturally enough, ‘My Funny Valentine’ had to come before ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’, signalled the concert’s end, the audience rapturous and rightly so.  

Rest assured, dear reader, this was music of considerable worth performed with evident enthusiasm by all, the collective cap doffed to the late Prince of Darkness quickly discarded as the quintet found suitable headgear of their own. Final thought: why does music of this quality, hard-swinging and intensely creative, utilising players who combine exceptional experience with a well-spring of rewarding ideas never make it onto the short list for the APPJAG Awards?

– Peter Vacher

Michael Wollny Trio cast a spell at Watermill Jazz

Having been described on his label's website as a "consummate piano maestro", whose approach to making music is invariably geared around a "quest for the never-before-heard", there was a lot riding on tonight's show to keep Michael Wollny's lofty reputation intact.

Fortunately for all in this hall, such qualities were confirmed the moment the he sat down to play - at once immersed in the sweet-to-solemn swing of Berg's 'Nacht', his every emotive chord, or impulsive, violent sweep across the keys complimented by his just-as-skilled sidemen, Christian Weber on double bass, and drummer Eric Schaefer.

Here on the second stop of a short European tour that would hear them perform much of their latest record, Weltentraum, this German-born band abandoned the traits of the traditional trio for a set that bridged swing, classical-informed ballads, ambient rock, hip-hop and frenetic, free-for-all fusion.

A sample of the latter was Schaefer's 'Phlegma Phighter', a riotous mess of scribbly themes pressed into difficult time signatures that not only stressed the drummer's tireless creativity behind a stripped-down kit, but his flair for generating creaky and clattery atmospheric noise with some tiny gongs, a bicycle chain and bits of battered percussion.

To the relief of those singed by the sparks on the front row, tensions eventually cooled for a reading of the Flaming Lips' 'Be Free, A Way'. Motored at first by just a faint, off-beat bass drum thump and Weber tied to a single-note drone, before a crack of snare cued up a more robust rock beat to endure Wollny's clunky, gospel-style chords hammering out the melody on top.

A similarly-slick feel from Schaefer spilt over into Wollny's own 'When the Sleeper Wakes', a pretty ballad that allowed the pianist to both stretch out rhythmically, and find weight in long notes, cushioned by a warm, soulful finger-style line from Weber.

Elsewhere, and whereas a strident re-working of Schubert's 'Ihr Bild' stressed both Wollny's classical credentials, and Schaefer's clear love of hip-hop, the band's most legit 'jazz' entry of the evening was a cover of Joachim Kühn's 'More Tuna'. Bright with a bop-fast, muscular melody that soared across the audience, and then back again, as if wired to Schaefer's equally emphatic cymbal playing.

Wollny's band duly delivered a set that proved a masterclass in light and shade. But while all admired the top-tempo thrills, high-note twiddles and long, spotlit solos that would also dominate (and detonate) the likes of Schaefer's 'Gorilla Biscuits' and nod-to-Neu! Kraut-rocker, 'Gravite' - it was the jaw-dropping interplay between these players throughout, and in particular Wollny's use of space to place rich lyricism - most notably over the almost cinematic-sized closer 'Little Person' - that left this the entire hall sedated. In harmony with all the hype.

Mark Youll
– Jon Frost (photo)


Omar Keeping The South London Vibe Alive

As was evident from various overheard conversations, there are many who revere Hideaway in Streatham as a musical oasis in south London. "It's great not having to traipse all the way to the West End to get a decent meal and hear great music" said one punter, avowing his credentials as a devoted Omar fan since the first 1990 album, There's Nothing Like This, and appearances were that this mature capacity audience had come out in force possibly to re-live a youth nurtured on the music of neo-soul master Omar Lye-Fook.

What could also be better than to catch him with a band of equally seasoned musicianship; the QC/BA Quartet comprising Quentin Collins (trumpet), Brandon Allen (saxophone/flute), Ross Stanley (keyboard organ) and Enzo Zirilli (drums). They effortlessly crafted a sophisto-funk backdrop where Omar weaved silken vocals on soul classics such as Roy Ayres' 'Sunshine' and William DeVaughn's 'Be Thankful for What You Got', with the audience also taking every opportunity to exercise their own vocal abilities.

With a career spanning almost three decades, mainly in the Soul/R&B arena, Omar's musical skills have attracted many and has seen him collaborate/contribute across many genres, such as his work with the Kairos 4tet and more recently the German Hidden Jazz Quartet who greatly feature on his latest album The Man. So it comes as no surprise the versatility displayed when the band performs a jazzy rendition of eponymous track 'The Man'.

'High Heels’, from the same album, tested the chops of Brandon Allen as he delivered an abrasive sax-led melody and gutsy solo over Ross Stanley's lush Hammond B3 sounds. With funky trumpet and sax stabs coupled with equally funky drumming from Zirilli, imaginations could run wild as Omar lyrically conveyed the image of a raunchy woman strutting her stuff through the night. His banter with the band and engagement of the audience showed true showmanship particularly his play on London’s supposed North/South divide creating a jovial relaxed atmosphere.

The Quartet shone on 'Fuerteventura', a Collins composition that saw him deliver a fluid happy-go-lucky solo juxtaposed by some animated drum work from Zirilli before Omar returned with another crowd pleaser 'This Is Not a Love Song' where he doubles up on synth, but the ultimate and most anticipated pleaser, came at the finale with 'There's Nothing Like This'. Written over 23 years ago "just down the road in Thornton Heath" he informs us, Omar expressed how glad he is to know that the south is being truly represented by a venue like Hideaway with their choice of programming.

– Roger Thomas – review and pictures


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