Steely Dan wow Wembley with songbook wizardry

There are few gig-goers who would describe the SSE Arena as their favourite venue but despite the lengthy queues, security checks by brusque staff and questionable acoustics, Donald Fagen’s legendary outfit – many of whom have been doing Steely Dan gigs for more than 10 years – quickly had the ageing über-shed rocking. They were set up nicely by a high-energy opening performance by Stevie Winwood’s latest band. This was a stadium gig played as if in a small theatre.

Winwood’s set featured thrilling UK saxophonist Paul Booth, Brazilian guitarist José Neto (remember his playing with Airto Moreira and Flora Purim at Ronnie’s in the 90s?) and brilliant, fiery Incognito drummer Richard Bailey. Later, Winwood joined Steely Dan to sing lead vocals on the shuffle ‘classic’ ‘Pretzel Logic’ (“a classic – if you believe in such a thing” quipped Fagen); how fantastic to hear his thick golden voice telling us how he’d “love to meet Napoleon” but “hadn’t found the time” (the lyrics are about time travel it is said).

Fagen complimented Winwood, telling us he was a tough act to follow but, as ever, whatever the Dan co-founder member lacks in range and volume he makes up for with character and inflection, helped by the supreme vocals of the Danettes: session singing royalty – Carolyn Leonhart, sister of trumpeter Michael – Jamie Leonhart and La Tanya Hall).

Much of Steely Dan’s repertoire features lush arrangements, with every instrument in a special place in the harmony. With so many voices – Jim Pugh (once star trombonist with Woody Herman’s Herd), Michael Leonhart (trumpet), Roger Rosenberg (baritone sax) and Walt Weiskopf (tenor) and the BVs – you’d be concerned that detail would be lost at such a hall but only Freddie Washington’s bass suffered significantly, as you’d expect in this cavernous space.

The set list covered the 1972-1980 range from Can’t Buy a Thrill to Gaucho; Fagen seemed happy to use the two hours to give the audience what they craved most, which meant strictly golden era material, nothing from the more recent, under-appreciated, Two Against Nature and Everything Must Go.

The Danettes, led by Hall, took on ‘Dirty Work’, setting spines a-tingling. On drums, Keith Carlock (recently reviewed here with Mike Stern’s band at Ronnie's) drove proceedings with enormous momentum, taking mesmeric solos on 'Aja' and 'My Old School'. A poignant moment came on crowd favourite Josie with guitarist Jon Herrington playing the deceased Walter Becker’s solo note for note – after a wonderful solo piano intro from the jazz maestro Jim Beard.

Earlier, Herrington quoted elements of Larry Carlton’s solo on ‘Kid Charlemagne’; Jay Graydon’s famous take on ‘Peg’ and both sides of the Denny Dias/Jeff Skunk Baxter exchanges on ‘Bodhisattva’. His own sinewy, dextrous playing shone through all night. Encore 'Reeling in the Years' saw Herrington joined by Elliot Randall, who played the original solo in 1972 – said to be Jimmy Page’s favourite guitar break.

There was no mention of Becker from Donald two years after his death, but the co-founder's mic and guitar stand were still set up on stage as always – that said enough. Fagen’s gigs always contain nods to other great composers and musicians; the set opener was Ray Bryant’s ‘Cubano Chant’; the band introductions were made to a supremely funky ‘Keep that Same Old Feeling’ by the Crusaders, and Donald left the stage to Joe Williams’ ‘A Man Ain’t Supposed to Cry’.

Stadium gigs aren’t usually like this; they’re about costume changes, video screens, choreography, pyrotechnics and giant props. Here, it was purely about the songs, the arrangements and the performers. As Fagen said: “Not bad for a Monday night.”

Adam McCulloch

 

Aka Moon energise Edinburgh’s Thrill: Jazz From Brussels

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There’s a new relationship in town, or rather, spanning two towns. Last month, a trio of Edinburgh jazz players visited Brussels to form a collaborative combo with three Belgians, penning fresh music and performing at prime art deco-styled arts centre Flagey, located in the city’s Ixelles suburb. The return response has been somewhat more ambitious, involving a full-scale invasion of Brussels-based bands for a three-day festival in Edinburgh, with a clutch of local Scottish acts representing the indigenous talent. The Thrill weekender was presented by the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival team, and on the Belgian front, represented by virtually every jazz-connected organisation in Brussels.

Three venues were used: Queen’s Hall, The Jazz Bar and Saint Bride’s Community Centre (a deconsecrated church), which made its full debut as a music joint during the festival. It was a successful transformation, with fine sound quality and a pleasing atmosphere. The weekend’s most arresting set came courtesy of veteran trio Aka Moon (pictured top) who are fast approaching their 30th anniversary. It had been almost a decade since many of the Belgian visitors had seen them play. This was a vital return, with electric bassist Michel Hatzigeorgiou being notably athletic with his resonant harmonics alternating with dub basslines. Alto-saxophonist Fabrizio Cassol spouted with fleet liquidity, while drummer Stéphane Galland emphasised the dub feel with his splashing rim-shots. Eastern modes prevailed, and the trio hurtled into a pacey funkster, with cycling alto and pneumatic drums, Hatzigeorgiou frequently intent on chording karate chops and nimble fingertip lines. Power entrails were ripped out of these convoluted compositions at hyperactive speeds.

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At the same venue on the previous day, a well paired double-bill of like-minded Scottish and Belgian bands also happened to be led by drummers. The young Strata sextet (led by tunesmith Graham Costello, pictured above), boasted a strong connection between the heavy piano repeats of Fergus McCreadie and the searing, escalating tenor saxophone soloing of Harry Weir. The latter wandered off for a rest, a quiet trio section following, with the guitar eventually returning for increased atmospherics. McCreadie was ceaseless throughout the set, diligently exploring variations on a riff. He gave a dramatic solo, its giant gestures hiking into a guitar focus, Strata being influenced by a post-rock palette, but still keeping it calmed down into a jazz range, incarnated in a gentler mode.

Urbex followed, led by lively sticksman Antoine Pierre, but having trumpeter Jean-Paul Estiévenart as a major voice, whether muted tight or openly fiery. There was a strange similarity between the two bands, due to their shared interest in linear accumulations and increasing drive, along rhythmic paths. The Dutch guitarist Reinier Baas was outstanding, his sound toned down with an acoustic snap to his electrified strings, soloing and riffing with light cascades that held a subtle, contained and organic excitement. The jagged and twitching 'Consequences' was a fitting platform for the soloing skills of Baas.

The Django Reinhardt roots of Belgium were expressed by Les Violons de Bruxelles at Queen’s Hall on the opening night, with three fiddles and only one guitar. Their repertoire wasn’t dominated by gypsy jazz chestnuts, taking turns towards Jack Teagarden and W. C. Handy, or being influenced by Argentinian and Venezuelan traditions, but then alighting on Fapy Lafertin. This was a more refined acoustic affair when compared to the Mâäk Quintet down at The Jazz Bar, their four horns mostly working in entwined tandem, a riffing unit out of which individual solos rose up, then subsided, sousaphone continually belching, alto aerated, and metal percussion whipped out during the skeletal sections.

Multi-instrumentalist Esinam and the Ethio-psychedelic Echoes Of Zoo consolidated their successes at last month’s Brussels jazzfest, with the latter inviting Soweto Kinch up to guest on a number.

The somehow lower profile saxophonist Toine Thys was one of Thrill’s discoveries, even though he apparently has an established reputation in Belgium. It seems that Thys tours a lot around African parts, and his orientation towards the sounds of that continent made the guesting appearance of Salif Keita’s guitarist Hervé Samb an ideal choice. Toine doubled on low tenor and writhing soprano, aided by clipped or waltzing Hammond organ.

Regardless of future questions over whether Edinburgh has sufficient suitable acts for a comparable invasion of Brussels, on its own terms, this Thrill weekender managed to entice strong crowds for every set, as the Edinburgh audience were bountifully repaid for their curiosity about the Belgian scene.

Martin Longley
– Photos by Marcin Pulawski

 

 

Bonsai Get Out Of A Jam With Groove-Laden Re-Boot At The Vortex

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While a name change can spark an invigorating re-boot for many groups, the brand U-turn does pose a distinct set of industry challenges which only those with the proper stuff can weather. Tonight marks the unveiling of Bonsai (formerly known as Jam Experiment), a London-based five-piece who have steadily been working the UK jazz circuit since their formation five years ago.

Ready to tackle the inevitable social media/bookings confusion are brothers Rory (trombone) and Dominic Ingham (violin/voice), Toby Comeau (piano), Joe Lee (bass) and Jonny Mansfield (drums), and this evening sees them preview new material from their forthcoming album on Ubuntu, set for release at the start of the summer. Having since met at celebrated Chetham's School of Music in Manchester, the five have gone on to tour extensively across the UK and Europe, as well as release a previously self-titled debut album, which featured rising saxophonist and former group member, Alexander Bone.

The first of two 45-minute sets kicks off with ‘BMJC’, written by drummer Mansfield, that sees the group blow off pre-show cobwebs and tune into tonight’s room at Dalston’s Vortex. The ability of newest member Dominic Ingham becomes immediately apparent as his effects-enthused violin skilfully soars above a slow-burning groover, followed by the gentle and atmospheric sounds of the gifted Lee’s own ‘Quay’. ‘Ritchie Scalp’, the first of tonight’s at times amusing, yet seemingly random, track titles, has a really nice pace to it and the impressive, brotherly synchronicity between trombonist Rory and Dominic is particularly present.

Bonsai are focused and purposeful throughout and Rory’s song intros are refreshingly light-hearted. Pianist Comeau’s meticulously crafted, nine-month composition quest, ‘Appledore’, and Rory’s footballing lament ‘Get It On Target’ close the first set strongly. The band’s penchant for journeying composition, reminiscent of early Dinosaur, conjures up moods of English countryside ambles and rural reflection, on tracks such as ‘Hop The Hip Replacement’ and ‘Itchy Knee’, the night’s standout tune. While the beginning of the second set is largely unmoving and could have benefitted from the band exploring a more varied palette, the group finish in commanding fashion. Dominic’s well-placed voice on ‘Bonsai Club’ is stirring, and the group demonstrate flare and execution on an arresting final piece. Bonsai have what it takes to see the name-change through.

Fabrice Robinson

François Bourassa Quartet shoot Number 9 narratives at The Blue Arrow, Glasgow

This intimate space in Glasgow’s recently opened hub of jazz activity in the city’s Sauchiehall Street boasts a sound system of which the owners are rightfully proud. Québécois pianist François Bourassa’s group exploited the speakers’ fullest potential, making an almost physical connection between their highly characterful music and the audience.

Opening with the lead-off track from their latest album, Number 9, ‘Carla and Karlheinz’ carried the Monk tradition of angularity and twisted melodicism forward in a bold powerful package, the quartet immediately registered a close-knit understanding, with Guillaume Pilot (here on drums instead of Greg Ritchie who plays on the album), creating a feel of perpetual motion that acknowledged all the composition’s accents, while driving the music forward with purpose.

A significant part of Number 9’s appeal is the clarinet playing of André Leroux. He was restricted here to flute and tenor sax, yet the inherently dark, brooding atmosphere of pieces such as ‘Frozen’ remained intact, while the suspense introduced by Bourassa and bassist Guy Boisvert’s simple descending motif on ‘Past Ich’, made for compelling listening as Pilot changed from sticks to brushes to fingertips in pursuit of the ideal accompaniment to the changing mood of Leroux’s extemporising.

All four musicians improvise strongly, but the music is presented in such a way that any solos are part of a piece’s overall narrative. Written for an artistic retreat Bourassa went on, ‘18, Rue de L’Hôtel de Ville’ conveyed the group’s gift for creating tension and release, before bringing the music to a satisfying conclusion, the final notes fading into the night. 

Rob Adams

 

Stuff chop-up Cronenberg, Downes and Challenger get organic and Esinam goes Afro-futurist at Flagey

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As the 10-day Brussels Jazz Festival progressed into its second phase, there were sets to excite devotees of both Heavenly and Hellish imagery. One of the hottest Belgian combos in recent years is Stuff (above), but your reviewer was not grabbed by his first encounter with the band in 2015. It seems that this five-piece can manifest in various shapes, so their ‘festival special’ involved the music of mega-prolific movie soundtracker Howard Shore. Excitingly, Stuff homed in solely on his prodigious output for body transformation fetishist David Cronenberg, immediately coercing the players into an atmospheric mode, yanked away from their customary power-funk. The keyboards of Joris Caluwaerts were prominent in the soundscaping, even though the other Stuffers were constantly beavering away: saxophonist Andrew Claes finding his space during The Naked Lunch section, this score a Shore collaboration with Ornette Coleman.

It was an orgy of extreme imagery, as the video-slashing duo of Bart Moens and Frederik Jassogne distributed their splices across four vertical screens, observing a grisly fascination with Cronenberg’s money shots, striking fresh relationships by cutting two or more scenes together, thereby intensifying the hardcore flesh-reddening content. The Brood, Videodrome, The Fly, Dead Ringers and, most teeth-gritting-ly, Eastern Promises flashed by their most heightened imagery. Stuff melded all, turning the contents into a new work, an absolute homage to the mighty Cronenberg. The music often sounded surprisingly tranquil and/or romantic, cultivating an uneasy contrast with the churning imagery. At times, the sonics became a background, but that’s the functional expectation of an expert journey into soundtracking oblivion. Called back for an encore, the band refused, leaving us with a head-expanding multi-screen clip from Scanners, the perfect end to a concert. This was the hard Stuff!

Across the Heaven side of the twinned Flagey lakes, the only gig taking place away from that central location was the English duo of Kit Downes and Tom Challenger, at the nearby Abbaye Church of La Cambre. Downes sat at its high organ, but a distinct disadvantage was that we couldn’t see him in action, apart from his nodding head-shadow. Also, the organ pipes didn’t seem as powerful as those heard during his church gig at Jazzfest Berlin in 2017. In spite of this, he still pushed them to the limit, issuing sounds that you’d never usually hear in a church. Challenger was left to play saxophone on the balcony, seeming lonesome, even though we knew Downes was close by, as Challenger’s horn cried out to the rafters, finding a strangely vocal reverberance, turning tonal tricks in marriage with the organ. This was an impressive event, but the music eventually drifted off, perhaps because it wasn’t anchored by any visual changes.

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Back at the late night Flagey foyer stage, the local Brussels multi-instrumentalist Esinam (above) demonstrated why she’s been travelling up a fast curve of recognition in recent times. She plays solo, but speedily crafts dense layers of looped percussion, keyboard figures and her own backing vocals, laying down flute parts, then soloing across this foundation. Esinam uses Brazilian pandeiro drum, tama talking drum and mbira thumb piano, as well as the occasional vocal, notably on the numbers from her eponymously titled debut EP. The zone is Afro-electro, and adventurous-with-tunes, the entire show dependent on her lightning triggering of stacked parts, a loop juggler, confidently grooved while being quirkily futuristic.

– Martin Longley

 – Photos by Olivier Lestoquoit

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