Robert Glasper and Christian McBride spell quality at Sofia’s A to JazZ Festival

Now in its seventh year, Sofia's A to JazZ Festival is both a surprise and a rarity. In high summer heat, with the backdrop of the Vitosha mountain, the atmosphere in the city's southern park is easy, friendly and relaxed and the three evenings of music on the outdoor stage are offered to the audience completely free, courtesy of their public funders and an array of commercial sponsors. The result is an open air event but without the usual barriers, fences or heavy security and, despite the presence of the various alcohol brand sponsors, a peaceful, good natured 'picnic in the park' vibe with an audience of families and friends of all ages.

Musically, the programme pointed in many directions, both geographically and in terms of its relation to jazz. On Friday night Sweden's Dirty Loops powered through their headliner set of distorted cover versions with a lot more punk-inflected energy than jazz-inflected meaning. The evening had opened with Bulgaria's National Academy of Music Big Band, playing a standard repertoire with a starred first level of ability (a tribute to the discipline of Bulgarian music education) and a drums plus two percussion rhythm section which kept the ensemble breathtakingly tight throughout. Fast pace and driving rhythm characterised much of the festival. Austria's FunkXpress showed just how much they'd learned from their compatriot mentor Joe Zawinul although without his flights of invention. Bulgaria's RomaNero somehow mixed latin rhythms in between the unmistakeable sounds of Roma wedding band music and ancient folk melodies; their countrymen in Jazzanita took contemporary jazz as their homeground but still managed to give much of their set a strong inflection of those frenetic wedding dances.

bulgabria-a-z-jazz

Local pop stars Angel Kovachev and Dorothy Takev were both, to be honest, more A to X-Factor than A to JazZ, but the Czech/Italian/Bulgarian piano trio of Uvira, Bruno and Hafizi (above) brought the programme back firmly to the jazz of today as they opened on Sunday with a set that featured more reflective music than was heard for most of the rest of the weekend. From neighbouring Slovakia, trumpeter Lukas Oravec and his quartet also gave the Sunday evening audience a set of well-played but workmanlike straight-ahead contemporary jazz; on the Friday, Spanish sextet Mastretta had ranged cheerfully around a mix of earlier, jollier jazz styles.

In truth it was the two American headliners who put the fire and adventure in this A to Z compendium. On Saturday night Robert Glasper (top) proved his band Experiment is just that. What can we do with so many facets of music now available to us? Hell, let's find out in the true spirit of improvisation! The whole set was that kind of roller-coaster exploration in which every member of this remarkable outfit (including bassist Burniss Travis and Glasper on keyboards and Fender Rhodes) pushed the music out and up, with a camaraderie of delight at each other's invention – such as, just for two instances among so many, Casey Benjamin's wild, free saxophone solos, which simply scorched the night air, and Justin Tyson's drumming, which more than justified the use of 'drumkilla' in his email address.

Christian McBride's quartet (a starry combination of the bassist himself, Nasheed Waits on drums, Markus Strickland on tenor and bass clarinet and trumpeter Josh Evans) closed the festival on Sunday night with a masterly exposition of what's at the heart and soul of jazz – freedom, more adventure, empathy, dynamic range, immense skill and (something that eluded several of the other bands at the festival) giving the music space to breathe. Their penultimate number – the simplest of blues - drew some of the most exquisite soloing and interplay and brought the audience to an emotional peak as they cheered with delight for more.

– Story and photos – Robert Beard

Wild Card beat the heat at Ronnie’s Bar

It was fitting, perhaps, that Clement Regert's (above) groove jazz outfit Wild Card should have arrived at Ronnie's upstairs bar on one of the hottest nights of the year. Scorched by the London heat, the audience was then scalded by Wild Card's horns, steamed by the Hammond, then blasted by a powerhouse of a performance from stand-in drummer Francesco Mendolia (below, of Incognito), constantly stretching the beat and throwing rhythmic ideas around.

Francesco-Mendolia

Wild Card takes an eclectic approach to genre: if the audience are itching to the groove, it works. A funked-up version of 'Beat It', started by Regert's glossy guitar melody and supported by Mendolia's chinking percussion, and concluded by Jim Knight's summit-charging solo on alto sax, led onto 'Heartshape Box', a muscular, driving funk take on the Nirvana tune that opened deceptively smoothly before roaring into life with another massive sax solo. Alistair White (below) on trombone matched Knight in adrenaline, though perhaps his stand-out moment was the yowling, muted accompaniment on 'Fever'. The vocals were performed by another new collaborator, Lily Dior. She combined ultra-precise articulation with an irresistibly sultry, yearning tone that gave her pieces some welcome breathing space after the pedal-to-the-metal instrumental numbers.

Wild-Card-Ronnie-2

Showing the band's gentle side was 'Lullaby for Lauren', with Mendolia picking up the brushes for a samba turned sax-explosion, and 'Papa Was A Rolling Stone', featuring Alistair White's acrobatic trombone tribute to ska. Alongside the incendiary Mendolia, Regert's regular Hammond player Andy Noble often took a back seat, adding silky texture and cute melodic flourishes, but he led the swinging band through 'The Ritz' until another massive Mendolia solo blew everyone away. Occasionally, with three new players in a quintet the ensemble had a seat-of-the-pants feel to it, but such momentary raggedness just added to the gig's immediacy. On a night when the overwhelming temptation was to lie still, Wild Card had the joint jumping.

– Matthew Wright

– Photos by www.goatnoisephotography.com

SEN3 Square Circle At The Oval

Sen3

The Oval Tavern in Croydon might not be the first place you'd look for new jazz talent, but that's where emerging trio SEN3 were playing their latest gig. Drawing on tunes from their debut album released in February this year, SEN3 presented a heady mix of Thrust-era Herbie Hancock funk mixed with more contemporary vibes. Bassist Dan Gulino is a regular with chart successes such as Jamie Woon and Jessie Ware, but in this trio you could sense the craft of a session pro being let loose on more cutting-edge material. He has a near-telepathic connection with drummer Saleem Raman, and the two formed the backbone of the action, with Max O'Donnell's guitar free to float lines over the top or occasionally drop into the engine room and push things forward.

'Benson Dealer' began with luxurious slow neo-soul chords, before kicking into another gear and evoking late 1970s Headhunters. Raman laid straight 16ths across a shifting 7/4 structure in 'The Drop', which had echoes of Roller Trio. O'Donnell's natural ear for melody came into its own, with his long phrases contrasting against Gulino's busy counterpoint, culminating in a scintillating drum and bass groove. The set closed with a turbo-charged roast through 'Mr Clean', which would have had lesser players hanging on for dear life, before a similarly breakneck rendition of 'Actual Proof'. Gulino was fearless in flying into the central semi-quaver hook each time it came round, and Raman and O'Donnell were right there with him on every beat. One audience member passed out at the bar and had to be escorted off site – perhaps due to the potency of SEN3's grooves as much as the Friday night drinks.

– Jon Carvell

Simon Spillett Quartet swing hard in homage to Harry South

Harry South has been an overlooked figure in British jazz, yet this pianist, composer and arranger not only played with some of the major musicians of his time – including Tubby Hayes, Dick Morrissey and Joe Harriott – but was held in such high esteem generally that when Georgie Fame decided to record his 1965/6 album Sound Venture, Harry was the arranger and big band leader that the young vocalist wanted.

As a celebration of his life and work, the Spice of Life saw Simon Spillett perform an evening of numbers associated with Harry, to coincide with the release of The Songbook, a 4CD set of Harry's work. An appropriate choice of saxophonist, given Spillett's in-depth knowledge of the playing of Hayes and Morrissey and his own straight-ahead technique.

Kicking off with 'Downhome', which was the Morrissey/South theme tune, the quartet showed immediately what the audience could expect – a hard driving attack full of fluency and swing, using the compositions as vehicles on which the soloists could stretch out. Baltimore-born bassist Tim Wells held a pivotal position around which the others weaved and he took impressively lyrical and commanding solos; Spillett's muscular, full-toned approach combined with fast sinewy lines while pianist John Horler and drummer Trevor Tomkins showed the kind of interaction that often only comes with years of playing together.

The Stan Tracey ballad 'Little Miss Sadly' (Spillett's tenor moving from forthright blowing to a mellow response) and 'Off The Wagon', were taken from the Morrissey/South album Here and Now, as was 'Corpus', in which Horler's variations drew sensitive and thoughtful support from Tomkins, who adeptly alternated between sticks, brushes and rutes to create the desired effect. In return, the pianist's economy of touch through an occasional chord, phrase or note during the drum solo on 'Simple Waltz', underlined their mutual awareness. And when Spillett came in to double the tempo, there were smiles all round and Tomkins, completely unfazed, took it in his stride and once more showed what an excellent player he is.

Other numbers played included 'The Scandinavian', Leroy Anderson's 'Serenata' and 'Sound of Seventeen', all introduced by Spillett's laconic wit, making this a special night, especially for members of the South family who were in the audience and for the distinguished writer Brian Case, a connoisseur of hard edged tenor men, making one of his rare and welcome excursions into Soho.

– Matthew Wright
– Photo by Paul Pace

Shobaleader One take drum’n’bass to the dark side

Four figures take to the stage of The Concorde in Brighton, masked and robed like Kendo warriors – the leader slings a mighty matt-black bass over his shoulder and the band smash unhesitatingly into the mutated cop-chase funk of 'Cooper's World'. At the first beat, the masks light up in flashing multi-coloured LED displays that alter with every note they play, chasing across their faces like the console of a 1970s movie spacecraft.

This tour is the second outing for Squarepusher's Shobaleader One and his colleagues Strobe Nazard, Arg Nution and Company Laser with their live interpretations of Squarepusher's studio classics, and it's immediately apparent that this time they are determined to push the awesomeness quotient to the limit. There's so many effects on everything that it's sometimes hard to tell who's playing what – a relentless assault of slap bass and skittering drum breaks, like Level 42 gone over to the 'dark side', sitting beneath howling storms of ring-modulated noise from guitar and keys. Deliberately woozy tempo shifts even suggest the technical chug of death metal, and indicate the levels of musical skill and precision at work behind the sci-fi aliases – the anonymous masked jazzers are among the country's finest progressive players, and the 'Pusher himself is a phenomenal high-velocity bassist as well as being a cult hero to the crowd of frantically moshing drum'n'bass fans.

There's a risk that music this intense will suffer from diminishing returns over a 90-minute set but Laser's incredible energy pushes things along, always managing to take it even higher on surge after surge of pounding drums. Technical problems send a hapless roadie scurrying to the rescue with spare bass amps, but the band rise to the occasion and ride it out, leaving the audience dazed, deaf and ecstatically happy.

– Eddie Myer

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