Burning Bright: The Westbrooks Take On Blake At Kings Place

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The music of Kate and Mike Westbrook defies categorisation. This has been the case from the earlier days of the Brass Band and Hotel Amigo to now. Glimpses of jazz mingle with cabaret; tango with choral; classical with kletzmer. This concert – one set, no interval – began with vocalised ghostly spirits, as if to eerily invoke the presence of William Blake himself, rising to a crescendo to usher in Mike's anthemic piano and introduce each soloist. The London College of Music Chorus also played an integral part, in true democratic fashion, as befits the philosophy of Blake and his links to Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft.

Kate Westbrook's vocals on 'London Song' led into 'Let the Slave', a tour de force introduced by Billy Thompson's violin, then featuring the strong and forceful singing of Phil Minton, with perfect pitch and diction, and the pertinent recitation of 'The Price of Experience' by Mike Westbrook. The choral chant with voiceover then allowed the violin's energy to aggressively underline the poem's point: "It is an easy thing to rejoice in the tents of prosperity... but it is not so with me." Blake's message as relevant now as then.

'Lullaby' spotlighted Chris Biscoe's fluent and sensitive soprano, while Minton demonstrated his vocal range with mellow and velvet tones. Of the two Kate Westbrook compositions, the success of 'Holy Thursday' lay in the way it made oblique reference to 'Let the Slave' and 'London Song', Blake's words again applicable to the present – "so many children poor... it is eternal winter there." Mike then carved out a solo like a painter layering paint, richly reworking with palette knife until resolution is achieved. And, all through, the choir busied itself with unearthly groans and demonic utterances. The choir's contribution to her other arrangement, 'The Human Abstract', wouldn't have been out of place in choral evensong, perhaps appropriately reflecting Blake's idiosyncratic religious leanings.

Blake's famous 'Tyger' was effectively portrayed by the deep growling resonance of Steve Berry's bass and the feline percussive hiss of Billy Bottle's vibraslap, then Kate's penchant for cabaret pushed 'Poison Tree' towards the tango, an abstract soprano and choreographed violin thrown in for good measure. Minton approached the cautionary tale of 'Long John Brown and Little Mary Bell' in a soulful manner before engaging in his trademark vocal pyrotechnics, growls and yodels sitting on a choral bed. The finale moved away from the sorrow and desolation of the human condition; the poet's optimism in 'The Fields' segued into the stirring 'I See Thy Form', a glimpse of Blakean light shining through the dark clouds.

– Matthew Wright

Baker's Boys Spit Out The Bone At Leam Jazz

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There's a feeling that, in the past, British trombonists have tended to be overlooked or sidelined. The Goonish humour of George Chisholm's later years overshadowed the fact that he earlier recorded with Coleman Hawkins, Fats Waller and Benny Carter. For every high profile player such as Chris Barber, there were numerous not so fortunate. This has changed to some extent, and a lineage now runs from Eddie Harvey, Roy Williams, John Picard, Campbell Burnap and Roy Crimmins through to Malcolm Griffiths, Nick Evans, Annie Whitehead, Dennis Rollins and Mark Nightingale. And that's ignoring the freer players like the late Paul Rutherford, Alan Tomlinson and Sarah Gail Brand. Increasingly they have fronted their own bands, and this was the case at Leam Jazz where Richard Baker's Quintet performed.

The quintet started tentatively – possibly not having played together for a while – and saxophonist Alan Wakeman had a bit of reed trouble from a new mouthpiece he was using. But after a few numbers things began to gel and there were good contributions from the percussive and expressive pianist Al Gurr, Tom Bull's full and resonant bass and Alan Savage's busy snare. Of the frontmen, Wakeman needs little introduction, his pedigree established from past associations with Graham Collier, Mike Westbrook and Barry Guy etc.

It was Baker's night though, and he seldom disappoints. Based in Rugby, he has a history of playing in classical orchestras (CBSO, English Symphony Orchestra, etc), in small groups with Mark Nightingale, Karen Sharp, Bryan Corbett, Adrian Litvinoff's Interplay and others, as well as swing and modern big bands. As a result, his technique is polished and tone distinct as he runs the whole gamut of growls and glissandos, speed and agility in handling the slide, thoughtful use of mutes and long melodic lines. He also relates to his colleagues in the band, listening and responding, and the passages of his trombone in unison and counterpoint with Wakeman were particularly strong. The second half, comprised of entirely J.J. Johnson-related material, included 'Bag's Groove' in which Wakeman's tenor effectively substituted for Kai Winding's trombone opposite Baker's J.J. horn. Another 1954 number was 'Lament' in which Baker soloed with great lyricism and sensitivity. Their version of 'Syntax' (based on 'I Got Rhythm') elicited a suitably apt comment from the audience, "Don't mention it to the Chancellor!".

– Matthew Wright

Verity Lane journeys the Japanese sublime in North London

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This multi-media production has a breadth of ambition that is matched by a depth of virtuosity. Music, dance, poetry and animation are brought together with great coherence and discipline by an ensemble of performers marshalled by producer-composer and sound artist Verity Lane in a strikingly original exploration of Yugenism or 'the Japanese sublime'. In real terms that means that Lane, a Londoner who lived in Japan for a decade, collaborated with three animators and a traditional dancer to find an original take on the country's classical music, which yields a fluidly shifting narrative over four pieces – or sound installations – that have a darkly atmospheric, theatrical slant.

From the positioning of instruments to the lighting and changing configurations of the ensemble the work feels very much like a series of scenes, monologues and duets, an intimate tableau enhanced by the presence of no more than three musicians on stage at a given moment. In any case, the bass koto played by Etsuko Takezawa is as much dramatic objet d'art that irresistibly draws the audience's gaze as it is compelling source of sound. A gorgeously burnished curved wooden frame streaked with strings, ivory bridges and tuning pegs the instrument is akin to a pre-industrial loom or a small ship in the imaginary world evoked by Lane, a place where there is indeed a boat drifting in turbulent waters, blue butterflies, dancing leaves (borrowed from Wordsworth, no less) and cranes which duly assume human form.

Wearing thimbles on her fingertips Takezawa vividly weaves Lane's scores into life and the timbre of the koto is startling for the unique evocation of metal, silk and wood that has a faint undercurrent of bluesiness recast to a zither rather than guitar. The frequent slides of pitch create a sense of sound curling, quivering and wavering that reinforces the image of choppy sea, and this harmonises excellently with Liam Noble's piano in the latter stage of the piece where the dissonant pluck of the strings and rumbling low notes come well to the fore. Yet a marked relief from these more confrontational flurries is provided by Clive Bell's shakuhachi flute and Ko Ishikawa's sho, both of which introduce a serene, almost hypnotic warmth to the stage. The former is as much notes around breath as it is breath around notes, and Bell's unfailingly precise articulation is such that his long tones hover languorously in the air, while Ishikawa's chords, drawn from an instrument akin to both mouth organ and pan pipes, are well layered without being muffled. At times the melodies are like swirling mist.

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All these sounds serve Lane's compositions, which have a stark, spare harmony, dot-dash motifs and a subtext of mystery that also permeates the other elements deployed in the production. Animations provided by Etienne Eve and Barry and Rowan O'Brien depict polychrome shapes while Kaho Aso's choreography is sharply mapped through obtuse and acute angles as if she were moving seamlessly between forest and sky as well as exaltation and endeavour. The steps frame the music with an apposite blend of beauty and gravitas.

Last year Evan Parker's collaboration with Noh musicians at King's Place was a highlight of Anglo-Japanese music in London. The fact that Lane unveiled this work at the T Chances venue in her birthplace, Tottenham, a manor that is not usually associated with avant-garde creativity, and that it is well attended by a predominantly local crowd, is a golden shot aimed at those who might choose to stereo-trash the area.

– Kevin Le Gendre
– Photos by Sean Kelly 

Damon Brown International Quartet With Ed Jones Deliver Hard Bop Judgements At The Verdict

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It's a complex web of internationalism that binds this band together; an Englishman, a Scot, an American and a German, all resident across the far east from Singapore to Seoul, joined by a saxophonist from London, and playing here tonight in the warm refuge of The Verdict. Damon Brown is dealing out the classic hand of dry wit introducing hard bop; opener 'My Deposit' is an uptempo cooker with a tricky truncated metric interlude; Sean Pentland on bass and Manuel Weyand on drums whip up a storm as Brown floats cooly above on his battered trumpet, his tone full and clear. Weyand is a terrific drummer, powerful, subtle and swinging. 'Mongolian Bossa' is introduced as "a love song... to a camel", though there's nothing flippant about its carefully constructed harmony. Then 'Han River Tales' features an artfully constructed arrangement that lets the rhythm section show off their aptitude for subtle interplay, powerfully driving behind the horns, pulling the dynamic down to build up again behind Paul Kirby's carefully measured piano solo, breaking down again to a perfectly paced bass statement and then to a drum break which is a masterpiece of control and technique. The pretty hipster standard 'When Sunny Gets Blue' is sung by Brown in an unvarnished baritone; standing forward in the club and singing off-mic, the effect is artlessly, utterly sincere, followed up by a truly breathtaking trumpet solo, a little gem of poise and soul.

Brown and Ed Jones have a long history together. As befits the leaders of an international band, they have the appearance of seasoned voyagers who have weathered many a storm; Brown in particular, a burly figure in knitted cap, hoodie and black-rimmed specs, looks like a bebop trawlerman. As players they're very well matched, both with a tough-but-tender tone that recalls the Harold Land/Clifford Brown partnership; they both specialise in long, logically constructed melodic phrases, driven forward by an unfaltering sense of time and a tone that projects outwards into the room. The set closer is a swinging 6/8 that has the clarion call quality of an Art Blakey classic.

The second set brings a minor key Blue Note-boogaloo named for Harold Land himself, that draws a real tour de force from Brown and sees Jones live up to the tune's namesake with his urgent but perfectly poised contribution. 'Lef And Lee', a tribute to pianist Leon Greening's powerful left mitt, sees intricate bass figures give way to a deep and heavy swing from the rhythm team. Pentland and Weyand really swing like the clappers; Kirby's piano favouring thoughtful harmonic depth over flash and fire, providing an effective contrast with the frontliners. Jones calls 'Out Of Nowhere' and gives a lesson in reading a standard through the art of bop. The evening's highlight though comes with 'I Don't Mind' – an original ballad by Brown with all the grace and wit of the Great American Songbook, the melody seeming to sing the lyrics which Brown himself claims to have forgotten. 'Kit Kat' closes the evening, until crowd pressure brings the band back to deliver a hearfelt 'My Ideal'.

This was a display of unpretentious musical mastery over a noble genre, delivered in exactly the intimate small club setting it was designed for, in front of an appreciative audience – judging by the smiles on the band's faces, a welcome stop-off amid their tireless globe-trotting.

– Eddie Myer

Clare Teal, Seamus Blake and Alan Barnes take Southport Jazz Festival by storm

Plus ça change, plus c'ést la même chose. That's just a fancy way of saying that the new regime running this popular festival [formerly known as 'Jazz On A Winter's Weekend'] stayed close to the template established over its previous dozen outings by organiser Geoff Mathews. His successor, Neil Hughes runs the Cinnamon Club in leafy Altrincham and clearly knows his way around the music scene, jazz included.

His first programme added an extra concert by The Weave on the night before the festival proper got underway, a gala dinner [with Liane Carroll to entertain] midway through and introduced a generally sharper, brighter look to the programme brochure, website and booking arrangements And it must be said, a marginally less challenging line-up of attractions: twelve in all. The result? A number of SRO concerts and a well-populated hotel throughout the weekend, the music mix apparently suiting both hard-core fans and casual weekenders alike.

The young trombonist Rory Ingham's Jam Experiment were Friday's opener, their set hampered by sound distortion [the only time this happened], reed and EWI man Alexander Bone assertive, the lines complex and at times, difficult to distinguish. Bad luck on them. No such caveats for vocalists Emma Holcroft and headliner Clare Teal (top), accompanied by the Swingtime Big Band. Teal offered us her inner Ella and how well she did it, swooping in and out of the melodic line with aplomb, the band nailing these Nelson Riddle and Billy May charts. Tight section playing: decent solos. Good for them. And Clare. The Australian trio Trichotomy invoked the lamented EST in their mesmeric, minimalist patterns and clever interplay. They also divided opinion.

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When Seamus Blake (above) took the stand at 11.00am on Saturday, he confessed the last time he'd played at such an ungodly hour it had been after staying up all night. That said, his tenor work here was simply magnificent, thoughtful, ordered and muscular. His UK compatriots Ross Stanley on organ and drummer James Maddren can have hardly ever played better. The trio's version of 'God Only Knows' was elegiac, ecclesiastical almost, and wholly memorable. A stunning set. Less so for me, The Train & The River with trombonist Jeremy Price, reedman Andy Panayi and guitarist Jez Franks recreating Giuffre's music, which seemed merely pallid by comparison. Derek Nash, he of all the saxophones, will have never contemplated 'pallidity' for he's a bundle of creative energy, his acoustic quartet in almost delirious form, pianist Dave Newton finding every quirky response you [or he] could imagine, with bassist Geoff Gascoyne and drummer Clark Tracey like blood brothers in swing.

Southport usually offers a discovery or two: this time it was French trumpeter Fabien Mary with his quartet. The dapper-looking Mary plays pristine bebop trumpet, his long lines and unhurried phrasing doubtless influenced by Kenny Dorham and Blue Mitchell but carried off with a kind of calm assurance that allows the full measure of each song to be explored and recast. His guitarist Hugo Lippi was similarly impressive.

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Young singer Ben Cox kicked off Sunday's sessions, his cheerful persona and engaging vocal stance somewhere between Harry Connick and Curtis Stigers, is utterly engaging. Great band too, with pianist Jamie Safir the standout. The afore-mentioned Price, the Birmingham Conservatoire's head of jazz, fronted their new Ellington Orchestra, concentrating first on 1940s material before tackling the 1966 Far East Suite in its entirety, with star pianist John Turville invited to handle Duke's piano passages. Daunting perhaps but here accomplished with élan and authenticity. Names to watch: clarinetist Samantha Wright, trombonist Josh Tagg, and stalwart bassist Josh Taylor among others. Festival favourite Alan Barnes (above) is a Southport regular, this time appearing with a classy octet plundering selections from his many suites. For my money, the latest, written for the Grimsby Fishing industry, produced some of the most memorable melodic twists and turns. Late on, the North's finest, guitarist Mike Walker and tenorist Iain Dixon produced a bustling set, bassist Steve Watts and drummer Steve Brown business-like in support, they deserved an earlier slot. Next year's dates: 1-4 February 2018. Note them now.

– Peter Vacher

– Photos by Robert Burns

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