Moonlight Saving Time Flying High at Bristol’s BeBop Club

Moonlight-Saving-TimeIt was a hometown gig at Bristol’s BeBop Club for Moonlight Saving Time to launch the long Easter weekend. A standing room only crowd turned out to hear their distinctive take on an eclectic group of songs and tunes, blending tight grooves with breezily handled, layered arrangements and fluent improvising.

They were straight into their re-working of ‘Afro Blue’ to set the tone. The odd meter groove and funky bass riff gave the familiar standard their typically individual twist as Emily Wright’s vocal line blended effortlessly with Nick Malcolm’s trumpet. A shift of harmony, a cute little turnaround here, a catch your breath bass riff there from bass player Will Harris, and familiar material was finding new life. ‘Skylark’, ‘Footsteps in the Dark’ (an old Isley Brothers hit), ‘Goodbye Porkpie Hat’ all had the treatment and were warmly received. 

There was new material too and the sense of an established band maturing and stretching out. Keyboard player Dale Hambridge’s ‘Desire for Nothing Known’, had an as yet wordless vocal line with a rich harmony underpinning it, providing a platform for some great soloing and then a real climatic moment as voice, trumpet and bass were soloing and grooving collectively. Some of the most affecting moments were when they stripped things right back. ‘Tide Moves’ provided an electrifying moment as voice and bass locked and implied a much bigger sound. Piano and voice launched the second set with ‘Sea Fever’, their version of John Ireland’s setting of the Masefield poem, every movement in the room stilled by the intensity.  

The excitement ramped up as the end approached. A storming arrangement of Calvin Harris’ 2009 hit ‘I’m Not Alone’ with a singing emotional solo from Nick Malcolm had everyone sighing. They were whooping as the set closed with a cover of Chick Corea’s ‘Open Your Eyes You Can Fly’. Lloyd Haines on drums, depping for the night, was a revelation, skittering and driving the pulse all evening and pulling out a delightful melodic solo on the closer. 

There are plans for another album and plenty of gigs in the book, including a London Jazz Festival appearance in the autumn, so expect to hear more from this cracking band.

– Mike Collins

 

Shez Raja Collective Go Mystic at Pizza

The charismatic bandleader is an abiding jazz archetype. They’ve propelled the genre forward with sharp-witted horsepower since the early days, and today continue to ignite grins on the faces of even those with a mere passing interest in the music. From Louis Armstrong to Robert Glasper, from Duke Ellington to Arun Ghosh, jazz’s magnetic personalities, old and new, have helped to popularise an often frowned upon genre with their warmth and wit.

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British-Asian bassist and composer Shez Raja is one of the latest additions to this esteemed lineage of musician-cum-entertainer frontmen. His wisecracking demeanour perfectly complemented the playful, energetic vibe of his Brecker Brothers-inspired, indo jazz-funk. If music ever ceased to be a viable income-generating trade for Raja, he’d be likely to hit pay dirt on the stand-up circuit instead. For instance, when explaining his band’s eastern credentials, the bassist, who dressed head to toe in white looked like one of the venue’s pizza chefs, quipped: “I’m half Asian, Gilad (Atzmon) has middle east connections, and Pascal (Roggen) had a curry last night”. The gags flowed as freely as his lithesome bass lines.

This gig was a launch party for Raja’s newly released Soho Live LP, taken from a three-night snapshot of some of his 2010 Mystic Radikal repertoire. The bassist’s all-star collective, which consists of Chris Nickolls (drums), Alex Stanford (keyboards), Pascal Roggen (five-string electric violin), Monika Lidke (vocals) and Aaron Liddard (alto sax), got underway with the do-what-it-says-on-the-tin groover ‘Adrenalize’, a steady onrush of double-stop bass chords, fluid beats and distorted wah-wah violin.

“We thought we’d ease you in with a ballad,” Raja cracked afterwards, before asking a man in the front “how are your chakras?” “Balanced” the man replied cannily. “Well, they’re about to become very unbalanced,” Raja retorted. And while the call-and-response jig of ‘Chakras On The Wall’ (which marked the introduction of master reedsman Shabaka Hutchings, pictured below) didn’t throw us entirely out of whack, it certainly made our heads swim a bit, thanks to Hutchings’ bantering sax and Roggen’s sly rejoinders.
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The collective’s firepower was at full tilt with the arrival of Israeli tenor saxist and activist Gilad Atzmon. While the other soloists were all brilliant in their own right, Atzmon’s steely, microtonal flourishes took Raja’s verse-chorus-based compositions to another level entirely, especially on the two-note rock raga ‘Karmic Flow’. Atzmon’s slurred-note frenzies didn’t let up on ‘RocknRolla’ either, a high-octane, squelchy-funk ode to Guy Ritchie’s much-maligned gangster flick.

Though the show wasn’t all speed and swagger. The ethereal ballad ‘Angels Tears’ brought Monika Lidke’s feathery soft voice to the fore, which gently wreathed itself around Raja’s high-up-the-neck, soft-focus octave chords. This gut-busting performance, along with Raja’s latest live cut, are yet more welcome additions to the jam band menu.

– Jamie Skey

Hiromi Blasts Off at Cadogan Hall

Hiromi MG 2104
It felt fitting that this gig fell on the same day as the London Marathon, because, while they’re finely crafted (if not a little formulaic) compositions, Hiromi’s winding jazz-rock suites often threatened to become aural endurance tests. That said, while it wasn’t a totally exasperating slog, the pint-sized Japanese virtuoso’s set felt like a series of demanding sprints, through which the pianist and her seasoned rhythm section rapidly passed the baton between prog-rock mania, Fats Waller-style stride grooves, euro-classical sophistication, latin flourishes and straight-up blues riffing.

Since severing ties with team Sonicbloom (bassist Tony Grey, drummer Martin Valihora and guitarist Dave Fiuczynski) and subsequently hiring old-hand sessioners Anthony Jackson (bassist) and Simon Phillips (drummer), Hiromi has scaled-up her frenetic fusion, and smoothed over its spiky edges. While her ex-associates were no slouches, the big-league duo of Jackson and Phillips has elevated her into the stadium-friendly echelons of jazz that she’s clearly had her sights set on.  

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At times, there was some doubt as to who the real star of the show was, as Phillips, who counts Toto, Judas Priest and the Who among his previous beneficiaries, was always on the cusp of eclipsing Hiromi’s limelight. His drum kit alone was enough to steal your attention from the leading lady, who seemed to be less animated than usual. It was as exhibitionist as anything Rush’s Neil Peart has helmed, with its fiery emerald paintwork, double bass-drum setup, extensive wrack of toms and a gleaming clutch of cymbals. Furthermore, nearly every other bar appeared to be a money-shot moment for Phillips, often over-egging Hiromi’s dazzling firework displays. No wonder she rarely plays small venues and clubs these days – they clearly find it nigh on impossible accommodating Phillips’ beastly kit! When introduced, the drummer swaggered up to stage front, bowed, and threw his arms up in true rock-veteran fashion. Ouch!

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Meanwhile, sandwiched between two colossal characters, Jackson, who helped launch her career in 2003, kept his head down and went about his business unobtrusively. Seated, he cooly unfurled thick carpets of low-end growl, as if from the comfort of his own living room. Amid all the keyboard and drum wizardry, he managed to squeeze in two low-key, fleeting but tastefully fingered solos.

The setlist was divided between Hiromi’s last two LPs (Voice and Move) and her yet-to-be-released 11th record, Alive. Despite all her virtuosic flair, Hiromi’s compositions, as mentioned above, were fairly formulaic: taut ostinatos sprung into full-on prog-rock spirals which dissolved into swing breakdowns before launching into uplifting, lyrical choruses, as on the Art Tatum-goes-thrash of set opener ‘Move’. Furthermore, the pianist had a slightly off-putting habit of cannibalising her past glories: ‘Alive’, for instance, sounded like a recycled version of ‘XYZ’ from 2003’s Another Mind.

Overall, this was a thumping performance, which afterwards, like reaching the finishing line of a marathon, left you feeling completely frazzled. Perhaps it’s time to bring team Sonicbloom off the bench?

– Jamie Skey
– Photos © Roger Thomas

The Comet Is Coming taking off at Hootananny Brixton

shabaka-hutchings250Space: the final frontier. Whether it’s Sun Ra’s allegory for Afro-American emancipation or Dimension X’s launch pad for interplanetary B-movie skronk, the interplanetary realms have always been a fertile source of inspiration for forward-thinking jazz musicians.

The nascent trio Shabaka Hutchings, Danalogue and Betamax – they only got together last year – flirt with the same cosmological aesthetics, but forgo conceptual grandstanding to focus their devotion on the beat. Theirs is a retro-futurist blend of progressive synth and sound effects exhumed from the vaults of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and the skyward imagination of David Durrah, buoyed by Space Invader rhythms and Hutchings’ punctuating sax, yapping into the galactic void like a celestial dolphin. It’s like Marcus Belgraves’ ‘Space Odyssey’ checking into the landing bay of Trans Am’s Futureworld.

But, if space is boundlessly three-dimensional, The Comet Is Coming exhibit far more restrictive parameters. Prolonged exposure to the troupe’s frenetic strategies feels akin to occupying a heavy gravity field while being repeatedly bashed about the bonce with the same slab of moon rock. Momentary and welcome diversion arrives with a tropical sax and synth standoff, evoking the verdant ambience of 1972 ecological sci-fi flick, Silent Running. Sadly, the sultry calm soon cedes, subtlety subjugated under a despotic, danceable stomp: Bruce Dern’s meditative gardens overrun by Wyndham’s wild triffids, his robot buddies cast adrift on a seemingly endless sci-fi pulse.

Still in the developmental phase, The Comet Is Coming would do well to intensify their probing of the outer regions, to introduce a little more space in their place, and avoid the blackened nebulae of funk fatigue.

– Spencer Grady

 

 

 

Django Bates and the Norrbotten Big Band do the double at the Gateshead International Jazz Festival

DjangoBatesGatesheadYou could argue that it's easier to premier a project than to take it on a successful second outing, particularly when that premier is a wonderfully eccentric tribute to Charlie Parker that left critics salivating and a packed Albert Hall in raptures.

But if revered British pianist Django Bates felt the pressure of a follow up, he didn't let it show, even with the added complications that come from flying in your big band from the wilds of arctic Sweden only to find that their suits and most of their instruments didn't make it beyond Copenhagen airport.

Perhaps the unfamiliarity of borrowed horns played a part because a first set homage to North East pop outfit Prefab Sprout, arranged by Norrbotten's artistic director and Sprout fan Joakim Milder, was a shaky start.

There were some nice moments. In 'God Watch Over You', Milder's Saxophone cleaved through rich voicings and a tumultuous brass backing that rose and fell like a North Sea squall. A mellow trombone feature on 'Oh, The Swiss', set to the backdrop of introspective guitar and washes of cymbal, was similarly effective. But on the whole, the arrangements sat awkwardly with the band. Swirling chromatic lines and gentle grooves quickly became directionless, stab backings cluttered the texture and endings were a little uncomfortable.

Yet when Bates took his seat in the rhythm section for the second half, surrounded by the band and his trio Belovèd, it wasn't long before we were back to the gloriously schizophrenic music of Prom 62. Challenging and meticulously chaotic, the set was a masterclass in compositional technique. Tempos and textures changed on a whim, eddies of squabbling saxophone were contrasted with arhythmic stabs from the brass and freer elements merged seamlessly with through composition.

In the midst of it all were glimpses and distortions of bebop themes. A fragment of Donna Lee's frantic melody appeared in the trumpet section before melting back into the texture, while a riff from Parker favourite 'Star Eyes' became an eerie vamp. Markus Pesonen contributed scrapes and scratches, drawing a tattered bow across the strings of his guitar, while Bates harmonised his scrambling piano lines with those of a detuned synth, creating an effect like the last gasp of an exhausted music box.

'Confirmation', featuring a virtuosic solo from Bates and bewitching interplay from the rhythm section, was another firm favourite. As was a latin rendering of 'Little Suede Shoes' and Bates original 'The Study of Touch', trio led and given room to breathe by a sensitive big band accompaniment.

Bewitching and irreverent, this is music that keeps you guessing and when the tinny sound of a mobile phone erupted from the audience in the final moments of the set it could almost have been a plant. If it was unintentional, it did nothing to spoil the occasion, an assured second UK outing for Bates and his Scandinavian collaborators and a strong start to the 10th Gateshead International Jazz Festival.

– Thomas Rees (@ThomasNRees)
– Photos © Tim Dickeson

 

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