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!

Hiromi MG 2227
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


Beyond hip hop: Glasper stays true to his improvising roots at the Gateshead International Jazz Festival

RobertGlaspergatesheadMuch has been made of Robert Glasper's R&B and hip hop leanings and of his gradual drift away from jazz and the acoustic setting of the piano trio towards the heavy, electronic grooves of the Robert Glasper Experiment. The texan pianist makes no secret of his love of hip hop producer J Dilla, Black Radio (his first record with the Experiment) scooped 'Best R&B Album' in the 2013 Grammy Awards, and the recently released follow up, Black Radio 2, features the likes of Lupe Fiasco and Jill Scott.

It comes as no surprise then to find that it's standing only in the Sage Gateshead's Hall Two, that the stage is wreathed in smoke and that the music blaring out of the speakers as the audience pours in isn't jazz, but classic hiphop and neo-soul.

Nor is it odd when a cheer goes up and the quartet take their places, dressed in hoodies and sneakers and led by Glasper who wears a t-shirt emblazoned with the word 'Donuts', the name of J Dilla's final release.

CaseyBenjaminGatesheadSo far, so hip hop, and when the band kick into a heavy, bass-drum led groove, that settles beneath the distorted vocals of Casey Benjamin (pictured left) on vocoder and electronics, flawless funk and hiphop is what we get. From there, a wash of keyboard from Glasper takes the group into Daft Punk hit “Get Lucky”, the visceral bass of Burniss Earl Travis slamming in like a freight train on the chorus and shuddering beneath the rimshot and heavy backbeats of Mark Colenburg on drums.

Tracks from Black Radio 2 stand shoulder to shoulder with impossibly tight renditions of earlier originals, while more covers, including 'Lovely Day' and 'Smells Like Teen Spirit', also get the Glasper treatment.

But don't make the mistake of thinking that the Experiment are out of place here or that Glasper has left the jazz behind entirely. Midway through the immaculately paced set, when the pianist finally let rip, his surging lines, sidestepping away from the tonal centre and tumbling in again, were steeped in jazz language. So too were those of Benjamin whose soprano sax feature brought the house down. Scything into his hi-hat, Colenburg spat cross rhythms of astonishing complexity, while Travis showed he had improvising chops to burn in a chordal bass segue.

Embracing minimalism and poise, and distilling virtuosity into the tightest of grooves, the Experiment have taken the best bits of hiphop and fused them with soloistic virtuosity, challenging arrangements and captivating rhythmic variety within the groove. The result is a genre apart, an imaginative blend that is nothing short of brilliant.

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


Jean Toussaint and Gareth Williams bring the house down at Jazz Direct

JeanToussaint250Jack Pine has been running his in-house concerts under the banner of Jazz Direct for some years now. When we say in-house we mean in his house, as his period home, The White Cottage, in leafy Harrow Weald has been enlarged sufficiently to permit seating for 40+ interested parties, with a performance niche that easily accommodates a quartet. Would that we could all fulfil such an aim – happily for us, the Pines had invited this all-star foursome to drop by and we were rewarded with a two-set concert that surpassed everyone’s expectations. A good piano helps, and the Pine’s Steinway Grand had Gareth Williams enthusing but above all it was the quality of the interplay that riveted everyone’s attention.

The opening ‘On Green Dolphin Street’ set out their collective stall pretty well, each man poised to pounce on the appropriate creative responses. Toussaint (pictured above) has something of Coltrane’s cry in his tenor tone, the attack more akin to the rough and tumble of present-day Rollins, each theme subjected to skittish, high-register runs, the imperatives from Tracey’s drums almost relentless in their intensity. Williams, for his part, made every solo excursion a journey of discovery, chording heavily before unfolding an array of apparently casual runs, from end to end of the keyboard, with Burgess taking the baton and running hard for the line in his solos. ‘Body and Soul’ always a test-piece for tenors, seemed almost skeletal, the beauty in the quartet’s treatment primed by Toussaint’s restraint.

Wayne Shorter’s ‘Mahjong’ came like a bolt from the blue, its zig-zag shape waking everybody up, with Toussaint at his most alert, Williams finding harmonic options that seemed wholly fresh and new and Clark Tracey swinging hard, his every accent injecting pace and propulsion. More good things followed on ‘Softly As In A Morning Sunrise’ before bassist Sam Burgess’s solo on Shorter’s ‘Footprints’ very nearly brought the house down. Thankfully not literally, for the final ‘Resolution’ was a triumph too; so much so that Pine couldn’t let his guests go without calling for some decent, down-home blues to cheer us on our way. A great night’s music-making.

– Peter Vacher


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