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 -

Wooten wows Komedia despite brotherly detour


A queue stretching down the street outside Brighton’s Komedia showed that Stanley Clarke’s recent appearance at Love Supreme Festival had whetted rather than blunted local appetites for fusion bass wizardry. Victor Wooten got straight down to business, taking to the stage to roars of acclaim to treat the faithful to an extended solo bass guitar improvisation that took in all his trademark slaps and taps, double-thumbing, harmonics, improbable pitch bends and slurs, alongside a torrent of soul-to-bebop licks and quotes from The Beatles’ ‘Day Tripper’. The band members joined him, one by one, and together they set off on a high-energy jazz-rock exploration. Fat basslines from Anthony Wellington on five-string underpinned Wooten’s muscular solos, as frantic semiquaver passages came to a sudden dead stop and reemerged as jaunty reggae, heavy guitar breaks alternated with some surprisingly restrained dynamics – and all in the first number.

The band champion the good, old-fashioned fusion verities that were well in place by the mid-1990s – thunderous funk rhythms, chiming altered guitar chords over heavy bass ostinatos, fleet unison runs, lots of bravura solos. Derico Watson’s impressive feature on drums, starting with choked-sounding, fractured beat displacements, illustrated how the biggest advances in the genre’s vocabulary have of late mostly been made in his department.  Wooten obligingly faced into different sections of the crowd so everyone got a chance to check his skills. The first part of the set was a ferocious, intimidatingly super-tight exhibition, but when he took to the mic he revealed himself as a warm, quirkily humourous host, and ‘I Saw God The Other Day’ revealed the band’s vocal abilities in an engaging Zappa-style soul pastiche with a serious message, before turning into a marathon of slapping, tapping and whacking, much to the crowd’s delight. ‘Ari's Eyes’, written for his daughter, provided an interlude of melodicism, whereas second bassist Wellington’s solo spot was another extended dose of funky paradiddles against the fretboard.

Then things took a sudden, unexpected shift in direction as Wooten’s brother guitarist Reggie took centre-stage. Whatever his undoubted skills and originality as a guitarist, and his pivotal role as a mentor to the entire musical Wooten clan, it’s debatable whether his skills as a singer warranted the presentation of an extended medley of such hits from yesteryear as ‘I Want You Back’, ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone’, Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Fire’ and Prince’s ‘Kiss’ all delivered in enthusiastic but approximate renditions, like a wedding band on their final set of the evening. It took a riveting, deeply sincere solo exploration of ‘Amazing Grace’ from Victor to put the evening back on track again.

In other hands, Wooten’s chosen brand of high-octane fusion can tend towards the offputtingly clinical, substituting technique for emotion. Wooten’s own relaxed, soulful sincerity shone through the whole performance, reflected back in the absolute devotion of the generations of fans who packed the house. The chops are amazing as well.

     Eddie Myer

     Photo by Tristan Banks


Swiss Big Easy comes alive at Ascona Fest


Revisiting old haunts can be a let-down. Not so for us this time, for the 32nd Jazz Ascona festival, subtitled ‘The New Orleans Experience’ and running over 11 days, came up trumps yet again for location, atmosphere, weather and, yes, the range of music on offer. If some of the great names of the past were missing, well, that’s life, and the broadening of styles into soul and jazzy pop left me slightly underwhelmed at times, but the crowds were good, and more to the point, the festival ended up in the black. No small achievement these days.

Returning after a nine-year absence, we could only again marvel at Ascona’s sumptuous lake-front location, fringed by mountains, restaurants in back, pleasure boats docking and setting out across Lago Maggiore, outdoor sound stages set up for daily action. Publicity and promotion were similarly stunning, posters and placards evident as far away as Bellinzona and Locarno, pulling the people in, some 45,000 of them, all reinforced by strong branding everywhere.  Add free programmes widely distributed, daily radio streaming, and music of both supreme quality and down-home folksiness and you have quite a festival.

Our first sighting may have been small in scale but the duo of soprano-saxophonist Aurora Nealand and pianist Tom McDermott, both based in New Orleans, played brightly, McDermott unfurling a bluesy strut that felt good, while Ms Nealand dug in strongly, also singing in a quietly wistful way on a Tom Waits song. Hard to imagine a greater contrast than that offered by powerhouse organist Barbara Dennerlein in the Jazz Club Casino, a barn-like structure, with drummer Pius Baschnagel in tow. This was my first-ever sighting of this superb German musician, seated like a flight-deck commander at her console, twisting and turning, the basslines moving all the time, the sheer drive and swing of her opening blues like a glimpse of mainstream heaven.   

A day later, it was ‘2 Pianos and 6 Pianists’ at nearby Teatro del Gatto, this launched by award-winning gospel star Davell Crawford, a man whose splashy piano and personal style manages to synthesise Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles, and who then persuaded a medley of other blues and boogie pianists to come and go, two-up or solo, the greatest moments of clarity again coming from McDermott, the greatest joy from drummer Herlin Riley, at his creative and responsive best, supported by an outstanding newcomer also from New Orleans, bassist Barry Stephenson. Just time after this to catch the imposing SMUM big band as a one-off in their stirring tribute to Jay McShann, their encore, surprisingly perhaps, Buddy Rich’s ‘Big Swing Face’. Brilliant.

Ascona has a settled roster of bands who take turn and turnabout, notably the Tremé Brass Band from the Crescent City who paraded daily, with Trixie, their alluring dancer clearing the way, and benefited enormously from the presence of pocket-trumpeter Shamarr Allen. This young virtuoso popped up here, there and everywhere during our sojourn. A man with boppish tendencies, for sure, he commanded the stratosphere in a Lillian Boutté tribute to Louis Armstrong, while digging the Tremé beat and appearing alongside trombonist-vocalist Glen David Andrews, a one-time NO naughty boy, who fronted a fervent (if over-amplified) gospel concert in the town’s ancient church. Allen, who told me he played country rock and hip hop too, was one of three star New Orleans trumpeters who had license to roam, playing by day in the town’s restaurants and then doubling up for the night-time sets. Leon Brown, known as Kid Chocolate, was less frenetic than Allen, more measured and delightfully fluent, while John Michael Bradford, presently studying at Berklee, had a go at just about everything, whether playing funk with Andrews, evoking Louis for Lillian Boutté or grand-standing with the big band.

Looking for the British contingent took no time at all, Boutte’s fine guitarist, Denny Ilett Jr representing 50 per cent of the British contingent, the other half belonging to the veteran Sammy Rimington who appeared with the rather tame Palm Court All-Stars, drummer Jason Marsalis their standout-player, logical and tidy but always determined on swing. 

Another Boutté, Teedy this time, vocalised lustily with look-at-me pianist Paul Longstreth’s quartet, their sets suffused with a Bourbon Street flavour, while the even younger Tanya Boutté helped to pace Lillian’s concerts, this great lady now evidently quite frail but honoured as the Queen of Ascona for her long-time role as NO’s musical ambassador. Her Jazz Friends played their hearts out for her, none more so that drummer Shannon Powell, exhorting and constantly inventive, with clarinettist Thomas Étienne as their cordial ringmaster.

Among the continentals, I especially liked Patrick Bianco’s Cannonsoul quintet, deserved winners of the 2016 Swiss Jazz Award, their tight, hard-bop sets crisp and invigorating, never more so than when they played Duke Pearson’s immortal ‘Jeannine’. Flying altoist Bianco could be someone whom Alan Barnes might like to know, here backed by a superb drummer Bernd Reiter and a fine veteran trumpeter, Peter Tuscher. The New Orleans Jazz Vipers also excelled, trombonist Craig Klein and trumpeter Kevin Louis fronting a six-piece, sans drums or piano, guitarist Molly Reeves vocalising in likeably period style. Good band, though, playing tunes like ‘Pagin’ The Devil’ and ‘Swing That Music’ with a kind of intimate grace. And there you have it, one man’s views based on six days from 11. The 33rd Jazz Ascona is set to run from 22 June to 1 July, 2017. 

– Peter Vacher

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