Cassandra Wilson, Edmar Castaneda and Pat Metheny shine at Jazzkaar Festival

The Baltic states might be a long way behind their Nordic neighbours in terms of the kudos of its major jazz festivals, but Estonia’s Jazzkaar is undoubtedly the exception. This year was its special 25th anniversary edition set in the capital Tallinn, a chic coastal city that’s an unassuming yet fascinating mix of the medieval and contemporary. A Silver Jubilee would have been no more than a pipe dream after the Soviets banned the city’s jazz festival in the late-1960s with the petty excuse that, “you do not need any jazz here, you have your singing festivals, that’s enough.” But Jazzkaar, under the shrewd stewardship of artistic director Anne Erm, has become the go-to festival of the entire Baltic area as well as a genuinely high profile fixture on the Tallinn arts and entertainment calendar.

Earlier events included US saxophonist Greg Osby as guest of Swiss trio Vein, the Israeli trumpeter Avishai Cohen, and Marius Neset quartet. But everybody was talking about the Colombian improvising harpist Edmar Castaneda Trio (pictured above), a new star in the making. The final weekend welcomed jazz superstars and blossoming local – as well as more exotic – talent. Vocal diva Cassandra Wilson (pictured below) was in retrospective mood at the new Nokia Concert Hall, celebrating the 20th anniversary of her groundbreaking Blue Light Til Dawn album. The 58- year-old jazz siren, with a head of Medusa-like dreads, held the audience spellbound. At once both barmy and shamanistic, Cassandra has a rare gift that makes you feel like you’re listening to her in her living room rather than on a big concert stage. She told a full house it was her first time in Estonia but she already loved the people and was catering to their vibration. The band, featuring longstanding guitarist Brandon Ross and her Swiss musical director/harmonica player Gregoire Maret, wonderfully evoked the heady, blues-soaked jazz ambience of Blue Light.

Jazzkaar seems to have something for everyone and the younger generation were getting their kicks from bands such as Portico Quartet. From folky hang drum-based London buskers to electro minimalists; nowadays they’re offering a mix of trance dance anthems and ethereal Steve Reich-like jazzy post-rock, the latter the far more challenging option. They went down a treat as did the crowd-pleasing Spanish female flamenco group Las Migas. Then an authentic Estonian Sax legend, the pianist Tõnu Naissoo recreated a trio recording he released in 1967, the first Estonian jazz album to be released in Soviet-controlled Estonia. Naissoo’s playing was intriguing with its darkly hued modal Paul Bley-like touches, and influences from east European romanticism through to its influence from the folky Nordic jazz of that period.

Pat Metheny Unity Group
closed the festival with a typically long two and a half hour set. Covering many aspects of his career, he incorporated his Orchestrion, from wailing jazz-rock numbers through to brief tracks from his Ornette Coleman collaboration, and played duets with every member of his high level band, the standouts being Antonio Sanchez and Chris Potter. Potter turned up to the afterparty jam without his sax, but at least part-compensated with an unexpectedly impressive display on the piano. ‘Positively Surprising’ as is the motto of the Estonian Tourist board and it’s something that could equally be applied to its world class, home-grown festival.

– Selwyn Harris


Vein and Osby get the Vortex spinning

GregOsbyVein MG 2918-620The title of Swiss trio Vein’s new release, Vote for Vein!, sounds like an offbeat TV satire. The sleeve, with three garishly suited, grinning men who look as though they’re about to present Match of the Day, is also boldly ironic. Fortunately, the musicians who appeared at the Vortex on 24 April, for one of their rare UK appearances, looked much more like ordinary jazzers. And they sounded like extraordinary ones; playing with an intense and intricate togetherness few bands can match.

They were joined by American alto player Greg Osby, who has returned to playing more structured music much like his years of peak involvement in New York’s radically free-spirited M-Base collective. The four were mid-way through a blizzard of gigs from Tallinn, Estonia, to the Mediterranean island of Menorca, and UK appearances are rare. Osby is one of three distinguished soloists (the others are Dave Liebman and trombonist Glenn Ferris) with whom Vein has a regular partnership.

But Osby’s presence clearly didn’t make this a quartet. There was an interesting tension on the boundary between the trio’s integrity and Osby’s freelance role, as the reeds man would sometimes take control, skirmish menacingly with his angular, quick-shifting alto phrases and bursts of Coltranesque epiphany, while at other times he stood back completely and observed the trio’s painstaking work.

GregOsbyVein MG 2916-620They played a combination of Osby’s earnestly titled compositions (you can’t imagine ‘Dialectical Interchange’ being much of a hit at The Cotton Club) and the Swiss players’ gnomically witty pieces, such as ‘No We Can’t (But Vote For Us Anyway)’. Perhaps most typical of their approach was the medley of the trio players’ compositions played towards the end of the first set: bassist Thomas Lähns’ ‘Eat the Rich’, drummer Florian Arbenz’ ‘Moving Towards the End of a Counter-Trend’, and pianist Michael Arbenz’ ‘Love the Difference’. Movement between pieces, and between band members, was beautifully fluid.   

In general, Osby’s pieces gave him the scope to solo freely, with the band in support, while solos within the trio were a kind of whirling, grappling display of playful interrogation, less about individual freedom, more a kind of sublime conversational high. Drummer Florian Arbenz would respond to a solo on bass or piano by dropping the volume, but often increasing the complexity of his beat, and teasing the soloist with his feathery rhythms. Bassist Thomas Lähns, though classically trained, often played his upright, acoustic bass like a bass guitar, with fast-fingered runs covering several octaves, and edgy, plucked chords. Pianist Michael Arbenz often sounded a little like Liam Noble, with a striking, percussive control of rhythm. There were moments of light rhythmic playfulness to match his brother on drums, and a passage in their medley of pieces when the ripples of sweet piano harmony began to sound like Debussy.

Towards the end of the second set they brought the audience, reeling by this point at the blistering development of musical ideas, gently down to earth with a version of ‘Summertime’ that was almost conventional. Osby began noodling fragments of the tune over a typically spiky Florian Arbenz drum patter, while Michael Arbenz gradually asserted control with piano. When the tune was returned to Osby at the end of the piece, it was shredded to slivers of nostalgia.

In the end, it would be a waste to vote for Vein, or Osby; they’re much too talented musically to run the government. They’re not here much, but they’re well worth the journey.

– Matthew Wright

 – Photos © Roger Thomas

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.

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.

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.  

Hiromi MG 2101
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

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