John Scofield and David Holland's Aziza Among The Balkan Fest Feast In Belgrade and Pancevo

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This year's autumn jazz festivals in Belgrade and Pancevo (just 25kms away from Belgrade) showed once again the passion and reverence the Balkan countries have when it comes to jazz. Both events featured a mix of top American and European names, with a broad range of lesser known and breaking through artists. The possibility to discover an as yet unknown talent is always a distinct possibility.

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Two artists appearing at the Belgrade festival who definitely fell into this category were Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez and Austrian pianist David Helbock – both highly impressive composers and performers. Rodriguez, who was spotted by Quincy Jones at the Montreux young pianist competition a few years ago, has all the hallmarks of fellow countrymen Roberto Fonseca, Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Chucho Valdes, but retains his own sound. His trio's performance was one of the highlights at the Dom Omladine Youth Centre in the heart of the city.

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Helbock (a multiple Montreux piano competition winner), who impressed with the band Random/Control at this years Bolzano Festival, showed that he's also someone to look out for in the future. Here with his trio of Raphael Preuschl on bass and Reinhold Schmolzer on drums, the music was heady and intricate – the interplay between them mesmerizing – the themes of the music inspired by the worlds of myth and legend.

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Of the bigger-named artists appearing in the much larger seated Sava Centre across the river in New Belgrade. Dave Holland's Aziza (with the imperious Chris Potter, Lionel Loueke and Eric Harland) were fabulous – at times hard-driving rock, at others more free-flowing jazz – the band and particularly Potter shone on every number. It was equally wonderful to hear Loueke just let rip on a number of occasions.

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Avishai Cohen was in slightly reflective mood, some might say 'laid-back'. But what his set may have lacked in outright energy was more than compensated for by the superb band he has assembled (Omri Mor on piano and Hamar Doari on percussion). Together they are probably the best piano trio around.

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Other standout shows at the Dom Omladine included Tord Gustavsen featuring Tore Brunborg. The intense passion he brings to his music is spellbinding, at times the only audible sounds were his fingers gently stroking the piano keys, coaxing out notes. By contrast, Gianluca Petrela and his Cosmic Renaissance band were joyfully tripping their way through some inventive Sun Ra-type compositions that had the audience stamping their feet for more.

Pancevo is a very relaxed festival, this time located in the town's Cultural Centre with two concerts per evening and, as at Belgrade, a jam session to follow lasting until around 2am. The mix is similar to Belgrade – big name American and Europeans, plus lesser-known artists who've taken the ear of artistic director Voja Pantic, who unsurprisingly, is also artistic adviser to the Belgrade festival.

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The Americans were led by, Lee Konitz, featured soloist in the RTS Big Band (probably the best professional big band in the Balkans). Konitz's playing was wobbly at times, but it's still immediately recognisable by its tone and phrasing. 

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John Scofield brought his 'Country for Old Men' project, a wonderful romp through some old classics that, at some time or another have taken Scofield's ear. His band, featuring Larry Goldings on keys, Bill Stewart on drums and the brilliant Steve Swallow on bass, were clearly having so much fun on stage, their joy and enthusiasm transferring to the gathered crowd.

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Enrico Rava's New Quartet played a blistering set, nobody contributing more than guitarist Franceso Diodati, who lit up the stage with his brillant playing. He's a real find from Rava, an axeman blossoming into a really classy musician.

The Balkans were well represented by the Romanian cimbalon duo of Miklos Lukacs and Kalman Balogh, the Lazar Tosic Quintet and Sound Sculptures, led by the impressive RTS Big Band pianist Ivan Aleksijevic

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But the best was kept for last, as the final show of this year's festival featured the James Carter Organ Trio playing a set comprising of Django Reinhardt material (although even a devotee would have been pushed to recognise the tunes). Carter takes no prisoners, from the outset his solos are fast and frenetic, honking low or squealing high, but always beautiful. Gerard Gibbs was almost dancing on the Hammond with Eddie Alex White anchoring it down and heavy on drums. This is a power trio in every sense. The triumphant encore of 'Nuages' left everyone sweating – Carter and band dripping sweat from their efforts, the audience out of breath and with sore hands from the applause they offered up at the end of the show.

– Story and Photos by Tim Dickeson

Oz Noy Trio's Funk Blues Flux Triumphs At Ronnie Scott's

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For the first five minutes at least, there must have been many in tonight's audience in agreement with New-Yorker Oz Noy's quote in the programme notes that his "music is jazz, it just doesn't sound like it". The vibes were decidedly heavy and bluesy. Flung over a solid funk groove from electric bassist Jimmy Haslip and drummer Keith Carlock came a fidgety guitar lick from Noy that flipped between spacious and reggae-like and the sort of howl you'd expect from Jimi Hendrix.

An inspired ballad arrangement of 'Better Get It in Your Soul' saw Noy, unplugged from all his axe effects and gizmos, delve into his raw and raunchy blues side. Naturally, the Mingus tune also proved a perfect platform for Haslip to solo, and some poignant noodling from the session veteran beautifully complimented Noy's soft, graceful chords, his fluid lines dripping across a shuffle so laid-back you could nap on it.

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The band followed this with a breezy new funk tune, 'Zig Zag', before pandemonium abruptly broke and an unannounced piece had Carlock and Haslip nailed to a knotty time signature and Noy intensely picking out what sounded like a 1970s cop theme. Even at his most out there, sonically and technically, Noy's playing remained lyrical and groove-driven through the show. His deploying of nervy, gymnastic licks, recurring loops or choppy wah guitar over already complex rhythm-section parts made for some real edge-of-your-seat interplay and soloing from all. A robust take on The Meters' classic 'Sissy Strut' built-up great tension, a polyrhythmic coup in which the tune's familiar melody was dragged in and out of irregular rhythms, clashing erratically against a simpler, syncopated pattern from Carlock in four.

With the exception of Noy's lone performance of his ballad 'Twice in a While', too abstract and shrill for tonight's crowd, more incredible playing from this tireless trio carried over into a second set. They cruised through more high-energy blues, tight-knit funk and loose, lazy swing, before splitting with a spirited sprint through James Brown's 'I Feel Good (I Got You)'. With Haslip holding down some serious low-end and Noy up in the high registers replicating all the busy brass from the original cut, Carlock drove the whole thing home, erupting into an explosive drum solo, the applause for which lasted into the opening bars of an encore, Miles' 'Freedom Jazz Dance'.

– Mark Youll

Maxi Jazz's E-Type Boys Get Into The Groove At Ronnie Scott's

 

With the E-Type Boys, south Londoner Maxi Jazz is exploring a funky, rocky seam, with jazz inflections, away from Faithless, the seminal electronica dance act that has been his main gig since the mid-1990s. Here, the besuited Boys (and girl, the wonderful backing vocalist Azadeh Akhbari) were augmented to telling effect by the Kick Horns, the UK section with an almost absurdly long list of supernova recording and gigging credits.

With twin guitars, keyboards, two backing singers and full rhythm section including percussion there is no danger of Maxi being under-supported in his new venture. In fact, you might think there was a risk of him being overwhelmed; after all his voice is a subtle thing, full of breathy, low-pitched restraint with a touch of vibrato adding a distinguished, knowing, vibe. But this disciplined, listening band soon allayed any fears. Every instrument had its place; the two lead guitars – Chris Dover on slide and Jake Libretto – meshing with echoes of Denny Dias and Jeff Skunk Baxter from early Steely Dan, especially on tracks like 'Saturday Morning Blues'. Similarly, Alexis Countouris' bass work elevated accuracy and punctuation above thunder; but make no mistake, the power was there, it had just been thought about. And Basil Isaac's percussion contributed far more than sheer rhythm, his instrument choices and note placement always enhancing the compositions, making a sonic space zone all of his own.

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Maxi's songs, some co-written with backing singer LSK – who occasionally shared lead vocals – are often riff-based, but just as the listener enters their comfort zone, they suddenly switch to bridges or refrains at other tempos, sometimes other time signatures, often 6/8, a device familiar in hip hop. Showcasing this technique were excellent, well structured tracks like the excellent 'Stand Firm', 'Going Back to the Bottle' and 'Smoke Screen', performed with a lean panache every bit as sharp as Maxi's suit. The addition of the Kick Horns (on this occasion trumpet, tenor, baritone and trombone) for the London dates was a masterstroke. The outstanding sound quality at Ronnie's meant the section's superb arranging, accuracy and command of articulation was rendered with the utmost clarity. 'A Long Time Gone' featured a simmering riff prodded along by lush, split, harmonised lines. 'I've Got Something in My Eye' saw the section switch to unison mode; ascending, dissonant voicings added tension behind Jake Libretto's searing guitar work. 'We're Alright''s slow funk groove complemented by super-smooth flugelhorn and flute.

The horns inevitably added a jazz inflection with their sophistication, but that was also true of Chris Jerome's keyboard contribution. In another example of well thought out arranging it was often left to him to round off tracks with solo piano improvisations, as on 'Chasing Shadows' and the evening's peak performance, the penultimate track 'Bitter Love', which also featured Jerome's fine Hammond-style solo.

Maxi is a man of many interests: a Buddhist who loves motor racing and Crystal Palace FC (he's a non-executive director) and he brings this eclectic quality to his music, which often seems about to veer off on a cross-genre voyage before being brought back to base camp. He had enough of his fans in the audience to guarantee a good reception, but those at Ronnies on spec, perhaps expecting a more traditionally jazz evening, appeared to be totally won over by the end of the gig, responding with a near universal standing ovation. Maybe next time we'll find out more about where that voyage is heading.

– Adam McCulloch

– Carl Hyde

Beady Belle and Farvel inaugurate Wesseltoft's Kings Place residency

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Bugge Wesseltoft's Kings Place residency began with a night celebrating 20 years of his Jazzland Recordings featuring two of the label's flagship acts.

Formed in 2010, Isabel Sörling's Farvel is one of the label's more recent signings and has been winning awards across Scandinavia, but this was its first visit to the UK. The sextet opened with 'Mörka Hav' (Dark Sea), in which a persistent bass and piano tremolo was punctuated by drifting, pulseless melodies, depicting the claustrophobic sensation of drowning in insomnia. Sörling's voice soared above the texture, showcasing her extensive range and facility with different techniques and electronic effects. Sometimes breaking into pop-tinged tones redolent of Susanne Sundfør, elsewhere Sörling would probe the extremes of her range to serve the wider contemporary textures of the group. 'Rök', the title track of Farvel's 2015 album, translates as smoke, but Sörling uses the word to create a metaphor for the physical sensations of anxiety. Over a quietly insistent ostinato, Sörling shared unison melodies with Otis Sandsjö on tenor and trumpeter Kim Aksnes, their lines twisting and turning – one moment angular and dissonant, the next leaping higher and brightening. Despite Alfred Lorinius losing the E string of his bass halfway through the set (with no replacement in the building), Farvel maintained a compelling exploration of their distinct and unpredictable sonic world.

After the interval came singer Beate S. Lech – more commonly known as Beady Belle – accompanied by Wesseltoft on piano, Christian Meaas Svendsen (bass) and Gregory Hutchinson (drums). One of Wesseltoft's earliest Jazzland signings, Lech certainly demonstrated the vocal firepower at her disposal, but the set never really took off. 'Marbles' and 'Castle' felt harmonically and rhythmically unadventurous, and too often the lyrics of 'On My Own' strayed into cliché. By contrast, 'Ghosts' – Beade Belle's first single back in 2001– still sounded fresh, with the catchy central hook and drum'n'bass groove imaginatively transformed in the hands of the trio.

– Jon Carvell
– Tim Dickeson

Mingus Underground Octet rock the Ropetackle Centre

"Come on, you motherf*****rs!" roars an imposing six-foot clown in white make-up and gold epaulettes while a suitably testosterone-fuelled brass section punctuate his spoken word with punchy, sharp retorts. Welcome to the jazz circus... and emotionally you are in for a true roller-coaster ride.

A cornucopia of live performance assaults the senses in tonight's exploration of the work and art of Charles Mingus, whose album Ah Um is a record collection staple on a par with Kind of Blue.

The Octet, brainchild of bandleader Andy Pickett, formed in 2014, clearly enjoy bringing out the sheer fun, modernity, energy and accessibility of the music. Double bassist Terry Pack , makes the bass in 'Haitian Fight Song' alternately sing and groan. On Fables of Faubus, this takes on a more isolated, alienated tone – perhaps like the anti-establishment Mingus himself.

Trombonist Mark Bassey proves himself a dry-witted frontman, making his bandmates mime Pithecanthropus Erectus to much audience laughter. His pacy, direct and communicative approach, together with Rob Leake's quixotic baritone sax and Sam Miles' assertive tenor sax solos, accent and illustrate each musical and lyrical story, while Milo Fell's drumming drives the dramatic tension.

The well-known 'Goodbye Pork Pie Hat' , is a lovely, mellow reflection, arranged by pianist David Beebee, as is the Pickett-arranged 'Reincarnation.' Trumpeter Martijn van Galen, spices up the evening with lounge-lizard passion, heat, brightness and a certain seediness.

As the improvisational cues are passed to each band member, these musicians somehow manage to stay true to the original Mingus recordings while finding their own voices within the music's framework: no mean feat. They have an insatiable desire to create music. Catch them at the South Coast Jazz in January 2017. If you don't like jazz, you will by the end of the show.

– Jasmine Sharif

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