Swingles mingle with McLaughlin and Garbarek at this year’s Edinburgh Jazz & Blues

In the appropriately named Palais du Variété The Swingle Singers are negotiating chords and athletically inclined melodies for which even their scatting of Bach’s ‘Well-Tempered Klavier’ might not have prepared them. ‘Soul Man’ is giving way to ‘Knock on Wood’ and ‘Little Red Rooster’ is morphing into ‘Johnny B Goode’ then ‘Voodoo Chile’, as the man responsible for all this, Lucky Peterson, swigs a beer and high-fives all-comers while still fretting the guitar licks.

Later, back at the keyboard whose vocal patch facilitated the sampled Swingles interlude, Peterson will duet with the rain battering the tent’s roof and cajole his superb Cuban drummer into doing something different to express himself. It’s tempting to say that we didn’t get anything like this from the festival’s biggest name attractions, John McLaughlin (above) and Jan Garbarek, except that we sort of did.

McLaughlin may have made slightly weary efforts to sell his latest album but his repertoire in a frankly thrilling gig with the 4th Dimension extended to Pharoah Sanders as phrased by Carlos Santana. He was also at least as encouraging to his drummer, the brilliant Ranjit Barot, as Peterson was to his, and Garbarek, before encoring with Blind Faith’s ‘Had to Cry Today’ no less, gave Trilok Gurtu no end of space in which to drum, vocalise and create his inimitable water music with a bucket that he turned into a musical instrument.

The organisers programmed 20 more ticketed events this year than last – almost 200 hundred over 10 days – and most seemed to reward this confidence, with a new venue, the City Art Centre’s fifth floor providing great views and proving popular for music ranging from Tennessean singer Earl Thomas’s urgent gospel-blues to David Milligan’s flowing traditional music-inspired solo piano improvisations. New faces likely to reappear included New York-based Emmet Cohen, whose grasp of jazz piano history impressed mightily and whose drummer, festival cover star Bryan Carter, proved as good at singing as swinging, while local pianist David Patrick’s adaptation of Debussy’s long neglected ‘Jeux’ was transformed into a potent, attractive extended jazz waltz for tentet.

– Rob Adams 

Dave Weckl joins Barker-led big band for Buddy Rich tribute at London’s Royal College of Music

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Dave Weckl was a devoted Buddy Rich disciple long before he stole the show playing ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy’ and ‘Bugle Call’ at a LA-staged memorial bash celebrating his hero in 1989. Magazines were running interviews where the skilful young drummer professed to meeting his hero, regularly catching him live, and even slowing down Rich’s records to half speed at home to nail all the insane licks. “I drove my dad nuts learning that stuff”, Weckl recalls, now 56, dusted with a distinct white goatee and taking questions from the floor in the lavish basement theatre of the RCM. He’s appearing here as a special guest of the college, the main draw of their one-day percussion festival that’ll not only present a rare clinic set from the St. Louis-born drum marvel, but also a special salute to his long-time idol, a set that will see him sit in with students of the RCM Big Band, performing a set of Buddy classics under the direction of conductor and trumpeter, Guy Barker.

Ahead of the main show, though, crammed into a busy timetable of timpani and drum-line performances, cajón master-classes, a session on soundtracks and some hard bop in the bar, Weckl spoke to UK drum promoter Mike Dolbear, who quizzed him about various aspects of his near-30-year pro career. The chat eventually eased into clinic mode with Weckl now centre-stage, fixed behind a beautifully-lit kit and dissecting such topics as timing, practice and his approach to feel. Every point discussed was also expertly demoed around the drums, often over whistles and loud cheers from an awestruck audience completely glued to his every move. This informative hour also included a funky sequenced track, ‘Get To It’, over which Weckl displayed (and displaced) some stunning breaks and beats, before closing with an equally-rousing open solo that flipped fluently between double kick-rumbling rock grooves, martial snare tattoos and cowbell-clattering samba patterns with equal aplomb.  

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Come the concert, and with the fireworks of the afternoon set still resounding in the ears of all, Weckl, Barker and the 18-strong band were welcomed to the stage, and to an early ovation which Guy let die down before easing the evening in with Ellington's ‘In a Mellow Tone’. Brassy and sassy, the tune’s seductive melody, trickling with light piano and a propulsive walking line, at once filled the room, surging into a heavier chorus section with a high-register solo from trumpeter Tom Griffiths. This was trailed by a more hard-driven ‘Nutville’ to which Weckl added a seductive, swinging latin figure. The persistent ting of his ride cymbal chilmed over a busy kit groove, prompting horns to blow with more vigour, in particular that of tenorist Azura Ono, whose broad, impassioned solo sailed to the back of the room, slicing through shrill trumpets and raspy trombones still carrying the theme.

Out of Weckl’s first, and arguably best, solo of the night, came a breezy ‘Basically Blues’ tapped along with soft quarter notes on ride, punctuated with light snare and the occasional bomb of bass drum. Pianist Sergei Istratis found gaps in the groove to plant rich bluesy chords or complement fluid jazzy runs from electric guitarist Toby Morgan, a lyrical player whose light, finger-picked style would feature more solidly over waltzer ‘Willowcrest’, and a funky ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy’. As he last did in LA all those years ago, Weckl once more made the latter cut his own, refreshing the same snappy, syncopated beat and darting solo he had brought to the arrangement. But while most drummers in attendance would relish the opportunity of watching Weckl deliver hot licks and solos like this in a swing setting, there was much magic to be heard in his tight, effortless phrasing. Whether at full pelt, doubling scissor-sharp sax lines during Sam Nestico’s ‘Ya Gotta Try’ or sweeping a lush brush part under Strayhorn’s silky ‘Chelsea Bridge’, his attention to detail and dedication to the music was worth all the applause.

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During a reading of Cole Porter’s ‘Love for Sale’, Weckl even recreated one of Rich’s infamous breaks over some fours. From a rattle of toms, a short, crisp snare roll abruptly stopped dead, leaving a single thump of bass drum to fill the moment’s silence, cueing back in the band to blow their last screamy note. One last encore, ‘Time Check’, gave Barker the opportunity to break out his horn, ramping up the intensity, leaping registers, and adding extra thrill to all the low-end honks and squealing highs. It was a fitting end to a turbo-charged set from a brilliant band that royally honoured Rich – a show that naturally belonged to Weckl, nearly 30 years on and still a bona fide exponent of Buddy Rich, his drumming and all that dazzling showmanship.

       Mark Youll

Photos by Jon Frost

Pharoah Sanders and Binker & Moses walk on water at North Sea Jazz Fest

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With all the recent Brexit shenanigans it must have been a proud moment for Britain's very own Binker & Moses to kick off the 41st North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam last week. Reputedly the world’s largest jazz festival, held in the village-like setting of the Ahoy complex with 13 different stages, along with dozens of eating and merchandising establishments, at NSJF you can immerse yourself in whatever musical bliss you choose to map out, during a jam-packed three-day programme, offering an eclectic mix to satisfy most tastes from mainstream jazz to contemporary pop. In the area known as Congo Square, Binker & Moses tossed and fielded phrases with minimum eye contact, demonstrating a maturity bordering on telepathy. A perfect start to the three days.

Other highlights of the day included Diana Krall, Christian Scott – who engaged with the audience throughout a performance of his Stretch Music – and Ibrahim Maalouf (this year’s artist-in-residence, pictured top). The latter appeared each day of the festival, with his final gig a stupendous showing with the Metropole Orkest. The same ensemble also joined Snarky Puppy, airing material from their collaborative work Sylva, a cinematic fusion of funk, rock and jazz. Kamasi Washington (below) later utilised the full weight of the Orkest to reproduce elements from his current album usually missing from his touring ensemble. This was indeed Epic!

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Buddy Guy created a storm in the packed Nile Arena, delivering gutsy blues guitar, reminding the gathered about the roots of the music. Veteran organist Dr. Lonnie Smith was also on hand, coercing every nuance and texture from his Hammond B3, incorporating aspects of his own electronic gadgetry and that of guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg.

The second day intensified with offerings from relative newcomer James Brandon Lewis, his trio invoking the spirits of Coleman and Coltrane, combined with hip hop rhythms. Performing tracks from his album Days Of Freeman, his composition ‘Speaking From Jupiter’, with its edgy lines, suggested we’ll be hearing a lot more from him in the future. Cécile McLorin Salvant brought the past to life with her sassy renderings tinged with the influences of Vaughn, Fitzgerald, Holiday and Betty Carter, while Charles McPherson and his quartet reasserted the worth of straightahead bebop sax in the snug setting of the Madeira Hall.

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One of the day’s highlights was the duo of Ron Carter and Pat Metheny (above). They played a varied repertoire with hints of Bach and originals such as ‘Eight-One’ and ‘Minuano’, the pure virtuosity of these two masters exposed in perfect unity.

The late evening performance from the Branford Marsalis Quartet featuring Kurt Elling (below) was simply staggering. The lyricism of Marsalis’s saxophone and Elling's stupendous vocal delivery on Sting’s ‘Practical Arrangement’ brought out the theatrical poignancy of it’s lovelorn lyrics before the ensemble beautifully rounded off the set with their recent album’s title track, ‘The Return (Upward Spiral)’.

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The plentiful timetabling of NSJF can often leave you feeling spoilt for choice. Particularly so on the final day, as Esperanza Spalding unveiled her Emily’s D+Evolution alter ego concept, her band accompanied by various vocal actors who explore the substitute personality, coupled with her own faultless vocals and bass work. Slightly more conventional is Henri Texier, presenting his new album and band Sky Dancers 6. Their name comes from the Native American ironworkers who helped build the skyscrapers, working fearlessly on narrow steel beams hundreds of feet above ground. A blend of jazz and Native American textures were identifiable throughout the set, Texier's bass providing drone-like pulses underpinning dense passages of horns, keyboards and moments where guitarist Nguyên Lê throws blues and rock into the sound.

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Charles Lloyd (above) was performing with his New Quartet – comprising Jason Moran (piano), Eric Harland (drums) and Reuben Rogers (drums). Though the name implies it, the band is not a new line-up and have been featured by Lloyd over many years. Performing tracks from his Blue Note album, Wild Man Dance, Lloyd ventured inside the piano during a Moran solo, wildly shaking and rattling percussive items in his oft-declared ‘search for the sound’.

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Chick Corea and John Scofield + Mehliana performed during the closing hours of the festival, while Cory Henry & The Funk Apostles raised the temperature with their rip-roaring rousers. But it was the Pharoah Sanders Trio (above), consisting of Trilok Gurtu (drums, percussion) and William Henderson (piano) that were the final day’s standout. Sanders entered the stage, seemingly a little unsteady on his feet, but seemed transformed as he brought the saxophone to his lips, extracting all he could from his instrument with the use of overtones, high harmonics and even vocalising into the horn. Combined with sounds and textures by Gurtu and Henderson, the look of many faces in the audience suggested they were in jazz heaven and no doubt looking forward to NSJF 2017.

-        Story and photos by Roger Thomas

Michael Wollny Trio breeches the wall at Montpellier

How lucky to be in Montpellier at the same time as the Michael Wollny Trio and catch them live for the first time. German pianist Wollny and his brilliant colleagues Christian Weber, double bass, and Eric Schaefer, drums, produced nearly an hour-and-a-half of delicious suspense and excitement under the night sky in the open air amphitheatre, perhaps a perfect setting for an artist whose last album was called Nachtfahrten.

Tonight’s journey was one of contrasting dynamics. There were long crescendos played at breakneck speed, bursting with ideas and risk-taking. There were also totally absorbing meditative passages with Wollny’s superb articulation dropping individual notes which momentarily hung in the night air.

Woolny’s physicality was a magnet too, knees jerking, feet twitching and, by the end, drenched in perspiration. Both Wollny and Weber had sheet music, and the set included pieces by Alban Berg, Guillaume de Machault and Paul Hindemith, but the exchange of glances and interplay between the trio members suggested much was being created in the moment. 

This was one of a series of jazz concerts in the annual Montpellier/Radio France music festival. In introducing the live broadcast, Radio France’s Pascal Rozat suggested that there’s a wall between the German and French jazz scenes, with musicians from the former country rarely playing in France and vice versa. If so, Wollny didn’t so much take a brick out of it as make a massive breech before striding through. The French audience responded with cheers and a standing ovation.

Colin May

Mathisen and Espen Berg Trio triumph at Trondheim

 

There are empty rows in the riverside Dokkhuset during native sax king Marius Neset’s exhilarating finale. Because in a more intimate corner space, Ole Mathisen and the Espen Berg Trio are turning it into the downtown club of your dreams. Mathisen, 51, has been a New York fixture since 1993, and on a rare home gig is hitting escape velocity with countrymen 20 years his junior. With Saturday night lights glowing through the glass behind them, listeners packed tight into every cranny and the bar hubbub rising, it’s a pleasurable pressure cooker, stoked by the pace of intergenerational exchange as Mathisen’s quick, cleanly inevitable lines are met by Berg’s piano cascades. Bassist Bárður Reinert Poulsen blissfully shuts his eyes, and drummer Simon Alderskog Albertsen punches the glass, letting out surplus steaming energy in a moment’s pause. All push each other exhaustedly past their limits, then hang on. It’s the kind of unrepeatable night jazz exists for.

Afterwards, I’m told Trondheim’s two 2014 Nobel prize-winning scientists spurn all offers to move to grander cities because of its jazz, even incorporating it into their acceptance speech. Where many festival bills are part of a movable feast of stars summering in Europe, Trondheim offers music you won’t hear elsewhere. On my recent visit, I felt very much abroad, as Norwegian artists spoke and often played in local dialect to local audiences.

Memorabilia, bassist Mats Eilertsen’s collaboration with female vocalists Trio Mediaeval on Norwegian liturgical music, is at its best an exchange of ritual, ambient beauty. Eilertsen’s amplified boom during the ‘Kyrie Eleison’ is among abrasive, treated sections. His drummer Thomas Strønen (an ECM artist in his own right) clamps a drumstick between his teeth like a cutlass as the singers, though their parts are choppily intercut, maintain ethereal grace. Harmen Franje’s piano reverie of gentle acceptance precedes a steady climb in communal power, before sinking back to a softly thoughtful ‘Agnus Dei’. As so often, it’s the thoughtful beauty, not the diligent harshness, that sticks.

Guitarist Ralph Towner – ECM veteran, leader of the band Oregon and sideman on Weather Report’s I Sing the Body Electric – pairs with Sardinian trumpeter and flugelhornist Paolo Fresu. The latter’s piercing, lonesome romance on ‘Blue In Green’ emphasises a debt to Miles of distracting size. Towner’s pilgrim’s ascent on baritone guitar during ‘A Sacred Place’, met at the pinnacle by a hushed Freso, is, though, worthwhile.

Crossing a bridge into the atmospheric, sparsely populated old town, the Gothic Nidaros cathedral lends its giant Steinmeyer organ to Jan Magne Førde’s composition ‘Mezzing’. Platoons of brass appear in a pincer movement, bracketing us in our crepuscular pews, and the Steinmeyer’s stalactite-like pipes offer Close Encounters-style sonority. Førde’s over-amped jumble of orchestral rock, African beats and gypsy fiddle doesn’t, though, live up to the setting. The current NTNU Jazzensemble – students at the college which makes Trondheim western Norway’s jazz hotbed – also crash bewilderingly from Albert Ayler punk-shanty cacophony to Marvin Gaye balladry.

Finland’s Katu Kaiku, in an afternoon slot in the Dokkhuset cranny where Mathisen and company later shine, prove worthy winners of 2015’s Young Nordic Jazz Comets prize. Starting slowly, and so quietly birdsong can be heard outside the bar, apparent reticence builds into funk flurries and fiery, post-Coltrane blasts from saxophonist Adele Sauros. She goes dirtily low and siren-high on soprano during ‘Supernova’; bassist Mikael Saastamoinen and drummer Erik Fräki’s quirky, searching rhythm section add to the dreamy melodies, introspection and soaring excitement.

Mambo Companeros, local salsa veterans with Cuban percussionist-singers, here backed by strings, draw a broad crowd with the kitsch-latin repertoires of Benny Goodman, Rosemary Clooney et al. Lead singer Alexander Fernandez’s louche touch of Antonio Banderas lights the touch-paper for spinning dancers and romantic rivalries at their hotel basement gig. A packed mid-afternoon bar in another hotel hears bluegrass played as if it’s jazz by Open String Department (genres which also recently met through Béla Fleck’s banjo duels with Chick Corea). Though sometimes soporifically introverted, glistening dobros, banjos and bass also achieve urgent, inventive speed.

Doffs Poi’s singer Mia Marien Berg screeches then coquettishly smiles at an upstairs club early Saturday night, giving another taste of newish blood (though they’ve been around town for a while). She drinks water slowly between songs like a fire-eater. Capable of massive volume, discordant collapse and slurring tempi, her band’s jaggedly unpredictable art-pop has jazz attitude.

Marius Neset’s quintet, with guest cellist Svante Henryson, are on fine form. Ivo Neame’s classical piano motifs back Neset as he finds an aching arc of resolution on a ballad’s final note. Henryson’s bow later leaves his strings with a whisper matching Neset’s breathy sax, the band’s heartbeat fading to silence. Soon afterwards, there’s Yiddish melancholy in the cello and Neset’s sinuously lovely soprano. It’s a palate-cleanser for the full band’s storming return, Jim Hart’s four mallets flying over the vibes, and drummer Anton Eger unleashed for headbanging flurries cued by brief Neset phrases. Neset’s solo encore finds his own fullest, high-velocity expression.

The never quite full crowd, though, suggest he’s a prophet not wholly honoured at home. In this festival of fascinatingly local focus, jazz and folk accordionist Asmund Bjørken, a genial, 82-year-old Trondheim mainstay, draws more the following afternoon. Cole Porter is sung in Norwegian and, on Liberation Day from the Nazis, the jazz fraternity toast a career begun in 1946’s glow of freedom.

– Nick Hasted

– Photo by Thor Egil Leirtrø - www.thoregilphoto.com

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