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


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


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