Mammal Hands get the Thump Festival grooving

The five-day Thump festival went with a bang at the prestigious Pizza Express Jazz Club Soho this March. Among the highlights were fast emerging band Mammal Hands who feature brothers Nick and Jordan Smart (piano and saxophone respectively) and drummer-percussionist Jesse Barrett. They came together through a shared interest in electronic, classical, world and jazz, and their three-year partnership has developed steadily with the release last year of their critically acclaimed debut album, Animalia, on Gondawana Records.

Given a rapturous welcome for what was their second London gig, the band is clearly building a name outside their native Manchester and the show a mixture of music from Animalia and some new material heard here for the first time. An immediate sense of a distant Himalayan influence was steered by Jordan who leads with floating solos on saxophone, which drift along in the opening bars of ‘Snow Bough’. The percussive rhythmic control of Barrett leads us into a bridge with Nick lightly tapping ascending arpeggios and a crescendo sustained by Jordan.

Ambient phrasing emerged in ‘Kandaiki’ alongside new tunes such as the seething ‘Story of the Paper Tiger’ contrasted with the faster beat of ‘Mansions of Million of Years’ and the rippling keys and disjointed sax of ‘Inuit Party’. Caught off guard with the unexpected demand for an encore; they returned to repeat the evening’s opening salvo. Driven by the rise and fall of the saxophone, the percussive throws on drums and the sustained lilting and melodic piano lines we got the measure of this musical and ambitiously determined band.

– Liv Fernandes

Joe Lovano/Dave Douglas Soundprints Band plus Charles Lloyd Quintet – Barbican, London

The Barbican stage was loaded with jazz history tonight. First on was Joe Lovano’s Soundprints Band previewing their debut album, for Blue Note Records, of music inspired by Wayne Shorter. They hit the ground running with compositions by Lovano and trumpeter Dave Douglas, featuring powerful, adventurous and melodic statements from the leaders, while the exemplary rhythm section of Linda Oh and Joey Baron demonstrated how effortlessly they could turn a groove around on a dime in the best tradition of Miles’ classic 1960s band.

Two works specially donated by Shorter followed, with long melodic contours reminiscent of his work with Weather Report; the band demonstrated their complete mastery of contemporary language, while traces of everything from the swinging funk of New Orleans to the joyous freedom of Ornette Coleman were bubbling just beneath the surface.

If Lovano’s set seemed to look both forwards and backwards along the timeline of jazz, Charles Lloyd and his uncannily telepathic band created a feeling of timelessness. Lloyd’s quartet was augmented with traditional Greek and Hungarian instruments, which added a haunting emotional depth as the music in this single continuous performance ebbed and flowed, drawing back to expose the archaic lament of the lyra, the stark, mittel-european tone of the cymbalom, or Eric Harland’s elementally explosive drum solo.

A gnomic figure in hat and sunglasses, Lloyd stalked the stage, his saxophone ever present to lead the turning of the tide or comment on the unfolding drama, throwing out fragments of melody or intense abstract explorations. His tone seemed to combine the gravity of Coltrane with the pellucid lightness of Getz in a truly remarkable performance packed with allusion, which nonetheless seemed as weightless as a feather. A rapturous standing ovation from the crowd drew this year’s festival to its close.

– Eddy Myer

Randy Weston and Billy Harper plus JD Allen Trio – 17 November 2014, Queen Elizabeth Hall

Monday night’s concert was one of contrasts and confluences. With a less-than-full concert hall eagerly awaiting Randy Weston’s arrival, JD Allen and his trio put on a sterling performance of virtuosic strength and slick tunes. Allen is a tenor saxophonist from Detroit with numerous reputable recordings under the belt, but entered my listening sphere through Jaimeo Brown’s mosaic-style album ‘Transcendence’ (2013). Apart from a few moments of crunchy multiphonic playing, Allen’s sound is self-assured, silky smooth and filled this large reverberant space with no problem.

Each phrase, cluttered with bop vocabulary, ended with twirls of vibrato harking back to a bygone era – all of this on top of the blistering drumming of Jonathan Barber and rock-steady, if slightly overshadowed, bass playing of Alexander Claffy. Amidst fast high-hat drilling, free moments, and double-time grooves, this dense sound all comes to a close in a perfect moment: the only ballad of the set. The audience is still and the sax-heavy mix in this huge venue has now settled. What we hear is a perfectly balanced melancholy tune of great beauty. Though securely within traditional jazz language, Allen’s compositions lend themselves to his trio’s virtuosity and amidst all of the frenetic energy, moments of reflection and beauty do show through.

Reams have been written on the roots of the blues and African American musical links in Africa (and West Africa to be more specific). Musical outpourings across many a genre pay homage to this tie and it is from this that we can place the collaborative music of Randy Weston and Billy Harper. Based on their late 2013 release The Roots of the Blues, this set was a surprisingly fresh response to two personal conversations with this important continent. Starting with ‘The Healers’, Weston’s square and deliberate solo piano-playing displayed his characteristic respect for space and silence, and his percussive, Monk-like chordal attack. The great Billy Harper’s fluid tenor sound enters providing simple melodic responses to the frameworks outlined by Weston. Building up to some atonal and gruff arpegiated figures, the opening piece starts to thicken harmonically, and Harper’s distinctive phrasing and tuning preferences come to the fore.   

‘Blues to Africa’ followed (which Weston admitted was inspired by the walk of an elephant) and as the set developed, one witnessed a deepening interaction on stage. Harper’s solo musings beautifully squawked and moaned, and Weston’s pianistic touch bounced between agitated stacatto voicings and quieter, legato moments. This intimate duo setting allowed the space and time for conversing, but also aided those less familiar with the artists to get a sense of their respective styles. Though their music was scattered with demonically fast scalier lines, the two veterans brought a sense of space and reflection to the evening’s proceedings. Weston and Harper’s playful and unsentimental exploration of (mostly) West African musical idioms was honest and moving - providing food for thought and leaving many satisfied ears in their wake.

– Cara Stacey

Charles Lloyd Group plus Joe Lovano/Dave Douglas Barbican, 23 November 2014

The last evening of the EFG London Jazz Festival 2014 was a fitting end to what has been a diverse ten days. With an almost full house, the audience poured in from the cold damp outside in eager anticipation of hearing two saxophone giants in new contexts, Charles Lloyd in ‘Wild Man Dance Suite’ and Joe Lovano in ‘Sound Prints’. What followed were two extraordinarily balanced and sophisticated sets.

Joe Lovano and trumpeter Dave Douglas formed the group ‘Sound Prints’ in 2012, with the idea of performing music inspired by the work of Wayne Shorter. With interactive free moments as interludes to more structured tunes, each band member contributed equally to this set - as did Wayne Shorter, who had composed two songs specially for the ensemble. Throughout the set, Lovano and Douglas moved from playing sweet melodic lines in harmony, to collectively improvising in a chaotic and haphazard way. Grooves from Joey Baron frothed and fluctuated; now slowly swinging, now plunging forward at breakneck speeds. The highlight of the set was Linda Oh’s rich bass tone and extraordinary musicality, truly deconstructing any notion of accompanying roles in this group. Each player came forward and receded cyclically in a kaleidoscopic journey, far from any predictable Shorter ‘tribute’.

The much-anticipated ‘Wild Man Suite’ followed displaying Lloyd’s characteristic hermetic approach to instrumental forces. Though the Greek lyra was harder to discern in louder sections, this set was notable for the equal space each instrument was granted. Often jazz musicians have tried to incorporate timbres from other musical worlds into compositions, ignoring the necessary acoustic considerations. ‘Wild Man Suite’, however, showed how the virtuosic stylings of Lukacs (cimbalom), the melancholy of Sinpolous’ lyra, Clayton’s sensitive accompaniment, amongst the remarkable musicianship of Lloyd, Harland and Sanders could all be housed under one roof.

– Cara Stacey

Regina Carter plus Yazz Ahmed at Queen Elizabeth Hall – EFG London Jazz Festival

Had this concert been programmed with a specific theme in mind, then the subject of ancestry might very well fit the bill. It was clear that British Bahraini trumpet player Yazz Ahmed had something new to say before she even played a note, arriving on stage in a stunning emerald green full-length dress of Middle Eastern origin. Joined by a sextet that included bass clarinet, assorted percussion and vibraphone, the sound of the Arabic modes pervaded her music as textures varied effortlessly throughout her short set.  

Violinist Regina Carter has been investigating her forebears recently, which led her to the folk music of the Appalachians where her paternal grandfather worked as a coal miner. A mix of these folk songs, arranged by her bassist Chris Lightcap, among others, were interspersed with other tunes including one commissioned for tonight’s concert. Hank Williams’ ‘Honky Tonkin’’ opened the set with the band laying down a solid groove before she even made it to the stage. The harmony remained static for what might otherwise have felt like a generation, however Carter’s sustained inventiveness in dialogue with accordionist Will Holshouser meant that the piece was over all too quickly. One of the folk songs, ‘Miner’s Child’ is a simple minor key theme that flourished as the harmonies were gradually reworked by bass and guitar.

Carter asked the audience what they would like to hear. ‘It won’t be loud’ she responds, but there was a break from the folk songs to ‘Hickory Wind’. Loud it wasn’t. Nor was it flashy or showy, and yet Carter digs deep into the subtle beauty with stunning results. If her band showed any brief sign of flagging as in ‘New for N’awlins’ by drummer Alvester Garnett, then Carter’s solos with their heavily syncopated lines got them burning again. Carter’s commission may have been titled ‘Pound for Pound’, but there was nothing here to suggest that she needed to punch above her weight.   

– Mark Stokesbury

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