An Evening For Jack: A Celebration of the Life & Music of Jack Bruce

A thunder of Afro-Jazz drums roared across the stage during the climactic highlight of a remarkable all-star show, dedicated to the memory of the late Jack Bruce. Former Cream team mate Peter 'Ginger' Baker provided the unique drumming tribute and his presence was all the more welcome, given the circumstances.

Just moments before I was due to announce Ginger's arrival, in my role as guest M.C. Malcolm Bruce, Jack's son who had organised the event with tireless devotion, confided that the legendary drummer was recovering from a recent heart operation. It was touch and go if he could perform. But Baker was determined to please the cheering crowds at the packed-out charity concert. He went on stage to explain his health issues and promised to play a solo, even if he couldn't join in with the vast array of fellow musicians, assembled to play Jack's most memorable songs.

He was accompanied on congas by Ghanaian friend Abass DoDoo and together they unleashed a jubilant barrage of polyrhythms. Ginger fiercely attacked his snare drum and tom toms with the same kind of passion seen for the first time playing with a blues band at the 1962 Richmond Jazz Festival. There had been hours of rehearsal both at the Empire during the afternoon and at John Henry's studios the day before. So, there was tension in the air when guitarists and bass players desperately sought extra leads and microphones and singers patiently waited hours (in some cases) for their turn to sing their one number. Malcolm, who also played bass and keyboards, was kept busy dealing with panic demands, trying to keep the star guests happy and organise the lengthy set list.

The show was full of surprises, like Pete Brown, Jack's erstwhile co-composer, singing 'Politician' with unexpected power and range. The rhythm section was variously beefed up by the indefatigable Gary ('I feel like I've played two shows already!) Husband, the blistering Dennis Chambers and cheery ex-Mountain sticksman Corky Laing. On bass guitars were Jeff Berlin, Mo Foster, Neil Murray and Trevor Horn, the latter on 'Out Into The Fields' and 'Without A Word'. Clem Clempson, a tower of strength on lead guitar, was supplemented by Steve Hackett who played the kind of blues never heard on 'Supper's Ready.' It was also a delight to welcome Micky Moody, Chris Spedding and Mick Taylor on guitars, Mick soloing on an explosive 'White Room' with Terry Reid taking the lead vocals, Malcolm followed in father's footsteps to play bass on Cream favourite 'Spoonful' joined by Judd Lander on harmonica, Steve Hackett and dynamite singer Nathan James, whose stunning performance encouraged Pete Brown to gasp 'Eat your heart out Robert Plant!'

Amid all this mayhem were hard working brass and string players including the dreadlocked Callum Ingram on cello, who drew applause for his vigorous playing, even during the rehearsal. Many fine female vocalists joined the fray notably singer song writer, Eddi Reader, Maggie Reilly and Jack's granddaughter Maya Sage. Biggest shock though was Lulu's appearance in trilby hat and dark glasses, giving a splendid version of 'Sunshine of Your Love' with Clem on guitar and Chambers hammering out the famed Baker-esque tom tom rhythm. Even so, it was Mr. Baker's own appearance that brought the most emotional moments. If Jack Bruce had been looking down, I'm sure he'd have grinned and said 'Ginger...you're playing too loud!'

– Chris Welch

Andrew Bain's Embodied Hope Quartet deal in wish fulfilment at The Verdict

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Andrew Bain is a truly transatlantic talent, dividing his time between Manhattan and Birmingham UK, with an impressive list of musical and educational attainments behind him. Tonight he's here with his all-American quartet to showcase a brand new opus, underpinned by some weighty philosophical ideas borrowed from a book entitled The Fierce Urgency Of Now that links ideas of musical improvisation to struggles for social change. 'Fierce Urgency' is a perfect description of the opening number – an extended, surgingly romantic rubato with George Colligan's rippling piano and Bain's restless drumming maintaining an exhausting intensity, exhorting Jon Irabagon's saxophone to ever greater heights over Michael Janisch's resonant bowed bass. It's a mixture of the free and the lyrical that recalls Jarrett's American quartet of the 1970s. Then there's a typically wide-ranging solo excursion from Janisch, from which emerges a staccato 7/8 line, that doesn't seem to truly settle until the band hit a fat 4/4 swing and Colligan takes off on a solo of seemingly limitless power and inventiveness. Irabagon shows why he's been constantly topping polls in the US – unfazed by the fastest tempo, slightly ahead of the beat, he can deliver a torrent of the most contemporary language, but tempers it with an attractive mellowness lurking within his diamond-hard, centered tone.

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We're being treated to musical interpretations of the seven necessary aspects of embodied hope, as laid down by the guys behind the Fierce Urgency book, and the next offering is another seven metre – a funk with a blues-inflected line reminiscent of Eddie Harris. It's smoking hot solos all round on this one as it breaks into a swinging extended-blues form, but Janisch probably takes the laurels for a staggeringly virtuosic display that leaves no part of the fingerboard unexplored. 'Hope' itself is a celebratory, uplifting melody, developing from a single pulsing note. Bain, his lanky form splayed behind the kit, abandons himself completely to the music, eyes closed and head thrust forward, the picture of transported absorption. His playing is powerful and instantly responsive, and he matches his bandmates in the pinpoint rhythmic accuracy for which New York players are renowned. There's a certain gawky awkwardness to his musical persona – it's probably fair to say that he's not really a groove guy, but the sheer energy of his polyrhythmic flow keeps the music surging forwards.

The second set offers us 'Surprise", a thrilling breakneck-speed slice of swing with Irabagon and Colligan vying for solo honours with superb performances, and 'Listening', a real tour de force going from eerie free explorations to latin-tinged free-bop and some high-energy drum trades. This is an outstanding band with seemingly bottomless reserves of energy and excitement and a strong concept driving the leader – the upcoming recording session should yield some explosive results.

– Eddie Myer

Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Mark Dresser suitably masterful at Umea's Swedish summit

In 1968, the inaugural year of the Umea Jazz Festival in Sweden, an all-conquering cohort of six-string heroes were wiring Fenders and Gibsons into the frontal cortex of popular culture, the ongoing brainwaves of which can be seen in the truly astounding Guitar Museum that is around the corner from the multi-purpose Folkets Huus, whose several auditoriums host some 45 gigs in four days. Fittingly, two guitar-led groups, of which Jimi, Chuck B and Bo D would have been proud, capture the imagination. Norway's Hedvig Mollestad consolidates her growing reputation with a set that builds effectively on the classic power trio template, mixing hefty Led Zep-ish backbeats with slaloming unison riffs and bursts of quite wildly crackling distortion.

Sweden's Susanna Risberg, also opting for a drums and bass accompaniment, couldn't strike a greater contrast, and stakes a strong claim as a potentially significant new arrival in contemporary jazz. Two years ago she impressed at a Jazzahead showcase and she has since grown as a soloist and composer. Many of her pieces have pleasingly askew melodic lines and rhythmic frameworks that shift between the dynamic and static, introducing welcome subtleties into moments when the improvisations reach fever pitch. Risberg has some of the piercing, steely tonal richness of maverick players in the mould of Gábor Szabó, and she deconstructs themes with an eye-of-the-needle precision, finding myriad phrasal variations, often in volleys of quicksilver sixteenth notes, while keeping tight on the pulse of the music. There is also a subversive streak in her personality that draws attention, above all when she takes time to point out that a newly commissioned set of songs is dedicated to African nations as a result of her discovering more about the ghastly realities of colonialism.

A special showcase of Young Nordic Jazz Comets is a strong sign that Risberg's generation has much to offer and groups from Finland (Ok:Ko), Denmark (Dyberg/Balvig/Nesheim/Kovacs), Estonia (Anna & Solvi) and Sweden (Daniel & Dundret) all show promise to varying degrees, perhaps with Norway's potent Megalodon Collective making the biggest splash by way of a bulky two-drummer rhythm section and rhapsodic Ra-like horns. To a certain extent a loose summary of all of the above comes courtesy of a pan-Scandinavian ensemble led by a veteran with a strong stage presence: Marilyn Mazur. Her Shamania ensemble blends elements of ritual theatre, dance and predominantly African rhythms laced with a sprite-like humour, and though some of the arrangements are a touch overwrought, the energy is engrossing.

Among the other big names on the bill the pick of the bunch is the outstanding Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba (pictured top) whose American quartet, bolstered by the presence of New York-based British alto saxophonist Will Vinson is imperious, playing a Charlie Haden tribute that captures the particular quality of soulful, shadowy lament that pervaded much of the music of the late American (and former Rubalcaba collaborator). The pianist's sound, created both by his articulation and masterful manipulation of pedals, bewitches at times, as does his ornate phrasing and interaction with a fine rhythm section anchored by drummer Jeff Ballard and bassist Matt Brewer. Not all of the headliners deliver as convincingly though. Norwegian trumpeter Matthias Eick's Midwest project is a languorous trawl through a kind of Nordic Americana that is disappointingly formulaic and Swedish electric combo Mats/Morgan's collaboration with the Norrlands Operans Symphony Orchestra does not make judicious use of the significant resources on show. Quite surprisingly, the same can be said of Norwegian pianist-producer Bugge Wesseltoft, whose celebration of 20 years of his highly-influential Jazzland label is a strangely muted affair in which the young talents to which he generously gives a platform shine individually without quite combusting as an ensemble. As is the case with Eick, a very basic failing is a lack of variety in tempo that is compounded by song structures that lean towards sketch rather than fully-fledged arrangement. There is a decisive change in the energy of the room when the pace picks up and the band is emboldened to groove with previously unheard vigour.

The most adventurous piece of programming from artistic director Lennart Strömbäck provides an object lesson in how to do just that and the artist in question is playing solo. American bassist-composer Mark Dresser is a master player whose rhythmic ingenuity – I think of the unforgettable set he played with Andrew Cyrille and Marty Ehrlich at the old Vortex way back when – and conceptual verve leave the audience rapt. His command of a purpose-built bass with a slightly trebly tone that is anything but flimsy is superlative, especially as he is able to draw a kind of vivid organic reverb on some notes by means of his attack. Dresser's sonic creativity goes to another level when he places a metal clamp with long spikes protruding like antenna on the bridge of the bass. It lends a unique mbira-like quality to his timbres, and although not a plugged-in wah wah pedal it still has enough richness to warrant a place in the nearby Guitar Museum. Hendrix would have been charmed. The legacy of black music in Sweden, though, is more direct, certainly when one thinks of the impact that was made by Don Cherry in the 1970s. Umea maintains an intelligent link to a range of exciting voices from America, Europe, Africa and beyond.

– Kevin Le Gendre
– Photo by Melina-Hägglund

Composer John Warren digs deep for Algonquin lore

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On Monday night, the Jazz Nursery journeyed to The Vortex from its new home at the i'klectik arts lab in Waterloo, to showcase a special nonet packed with emerging talent. The group had been assembled specially for an evening of Canadian composer John Warren's work, including the second performance of 'Awhereabout', commissioned and premiered by the Nursery earlier in the year.

Conducted by Warren and kicking off with 'Lopsided' from his 2008 album Finally Beginning, the group didn't take long to hit its stride. Oli Hayhurst (bass) and Dave Hamblett (drums) swung hard on 'Convergent', which featured the impressive Owen Dawson on trombone and the expansive phrasing of James Allsopp on tenor. Just as the line-up of Warren's recent studio discs reads as a who's who of top British jazz players, so tonight felt like a guide to the next generation. A huge fan of Monk, Warren included a fine arrangement of 'Ruby My Dear' as the only non-original of the night – Sam Braysher's mellow alto sound weaving ornamented lines over the ballad.

After the interval came 'Awhereabout', which takes its name from a made-up word conjuring the expanses of the Canadian wilderness. Warren's 50-minute four-movement work – inspired by the folk stories of the indigenous Algonquin people – was shot-through with inventive arranging and Gil Evans-esque tutti writing. Trumpeter Steve Fishwick roared out of the blocks on the opening number 'Story of the Drum', and as the four sections progressed there was a real sense of development, culminating in the catchy central theme of the last movement, 'Land of Deep Water'. Though the cool school sound isn't an obvious choice for evoking Algonquin lore and legend, Warren's musical language felt uniquely compelling.

– Jon Carvell
– Photo by Liam Izod

Jouné Kréyol brings Black History Month alive in South London

Black History Month rightfully seeks to expand views of Africa and its Diaspora, but there are usually glaring blind spots. Our perception of the West Indies remains largely governed by the territorial divisions of Empire, so that Jamaica and Trinidad, formerly British colonies, spring to mind at the expense of Guadeloupe and Martinique, two islands that are still départements francais. But they are an integral part of all our Caribbean history.

This engagingly soulful event celebrates as much. Produced by Zil' Oka, a musical ensemble and organisation that stages cultural events for the relatively small francophone West Indian expatriate community in Britain, the numbers of which are hard to ascertain because its members are administered as French citizens, Jouné Kréyol is a whole day of family-based activities, from cooking workshops to dance classes, games and quizzes on the creole language.

The presence of all age groups, from children and teenagers to adults and pensioners, at a community centre on the Tulse Hill estate in South London, also reinforces the old African adage that it takes a whole village to raise a child. This feels like cultural activism from the ground up rather than a top-down diversity initiative.

As the tang of akwa a mori, [codfish fritters], wafts through the air the evening of performances by Guadeloupean and Martiniquan artists begins. Up first is singer S.Rise, whose set is lively, though the reggae-slanted backing tracks rather than a live band, compromise his strong tenor. Things take an upward turn with songstress Ines Khai, whose finely wrought vocal is effectively embellished by the subtle but resonant backing of two members of Zil' Oka. The sparkling timbres produced by percussion, whistles, bells and conch shell weave a rich fabric around yearning melodies fringed by syncopated guitar chords. Sung in creole, the pieces speak of anything from affairs of the heart to the rigours of daily life, and visibly connect with the audience.

The same applies to Zil' Oka, who scale up to the full band with more vocalists and percussionists, two of whom play the 'gwo' ka', a large kind of conga while Christian Takadoum excels on the higher pitched 'ti ka.' With the bigger drums providing a rumbling bass Takadoum solos liberally in the upper register, some of his phrases ending on sharp, crisp notes not dissimilar to the rimshot of a snare, and as the swish polyrhythms spread out over a wide dynamic spectrum it is easy to see why jazz musicians such as David Murray and Jacques Schwarz-Bart were keen to incorporate this vocabulary into their work. The evening climaxes with the appearance of special guests Ka Fraternité, a similar, [Paris-based] organisation to Zil' Oka that brings more drummers and singers to the stage to create a denser, bulky sound, especially when calabash shakers, almost like a heavier form of maracas, come into play. More importantly the percussionists enter into call and response with a troupe of dancers as the audience joins in a rousing praise song to the elders, 'Pas Oublier', which essentially means 'lest we forget.'

Much as the drums and dance are to be applauded the beauty and plurality of the creole language also stand out. Nothing conveys this more than the many renditions of 'How are you?' that are flagged up in the hall. In Martinique they say 'Sa ka fet?' In Guadeloupe 'Ki jan aw?' In Haiti 'Koman ou ye?' Out of many people, many tongues.

– Kevin Le Gendre
– Photos by Max Boucher

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