This was a very slick band. From where I was sitting I could see the hands of drummer Kaspar Rast, reflected in the glossy sheen of Nik Bärtsch’s Steinway. These hands were always moving, countering the piano with a precision that implied a mystical symbiosis. A black film on the back skin of the bass drum, rippling in oily shudders, sucked in the light with each beat. Bärtsch is a clinical band leader whose movements have come to take on the mischievousness worthy of his Zurich home. His pale-faced, caricatured expressions and clinical hand gestures are a 21st century Zurich DADA distilled through the tightest of rhythmic prisms. With the fuller 8 piece canvass we were drawn through a broader range of soundscapes than the original Ronin line-up. Bärtsch himself is completely at home on the grand, willing to explore its sonic possibilities without ever being gimmicky. The brass section was neatly choreographed, obeying the solitary proffered index finger of bass clarinettist, Sha, who hulked front stage with all his exotic energy. Yet the playful authoritarianism was always being tempted off course by the individual musicians all fighting for their place in the groove. Generally controlled by the slick aesthetic, a memorable break came from Michael Flury’s rich and heady trombone. As a group they have moved beyond mere performance into trances of musical presence in distorted time – Zen-funk. Rhythmic polyphonies were ushered in either with dramatic impact, or via extended periods of simple against compound beats, an experience that felt as if the mind were being torn in two directions cell by cell, indistinguishable and leading to a state of indefinite focus: waves of heavy groove in a tidal drift of time signatures. Either way, this was an ensemble with real flexibility and musical charisma, which had its audience trembling for more.
– – Will Kemp
There are many ways to remember the geniuses of jazz history: a biographical, documentary style reading interspersed with live big band arrangements and three alternating singers is how this evening’s mastermind, Alex Webb, chose to do it. His narrative, read vividly by Sirena Riley, made the case for Strayhorn as a foremost composer of the last century and rescued him from his over-bearing friend and collaborator, Ellington. The band was led by the unflappable Frank Griffith on tenor sax and clarinet, whose solos showed a well-developed sound on both instruments. Other band members were highly capable players, as a final round-table of solos proved beyond doubt.
The Cadogan Hall wasn’t sure what to make of the show at first. Despite Allen Harris’s natural stage-presence, rich vocals and masterly mic technique, which made for a fabulous opener, we were confused by the set up. Where did the music fit in this historical overview of Strayhorn’s career? It wasn’t until a few songs in, and the arrival of the excellent David McAlmont, that everyone relaxed. A further highlight came with the Fitzgerald number, ‘Imagine My Frustration’, performed with verve by Sandra Nkaké, who made up for occasionally ear-splitting amplification with excellent command of the voice in both pitch and tone.
That Strayhorn really is a standout composer in his own right was clear from any number on the programme, not least his hits ‘Take the A-Train’ and ‘Lush Life’, but with ‘Daydream’, it was impossible not to sense that we were remembering a musician of real quality. Here was a song that showed a genuine technical grasp of movements in 20th Century classical music, the ‘tone poems of Ravel and Debussy’, balanced perfectly with Strayhorn’s incredible, inimitable style. In all this was an excellent concert, with variety and solid performances all round.
– Will Kemp
Against the balance of power between improvisers there are often casualties. But Steve Beresford’s unassuming, yet warm presence, his deftness both in touch and in timing, has found a complimentary dynamic force in violinist Satoko Fukuda. Her array of dazzling techniques, particularly a neat spicatto, and hunger for ideas brought about exciting exchanges between the two artists, who were exploring their respective capabilities in a new partnership that sacrificed polish in favour of authentic artistic exploration. The result was refreshing and at times great fun.
Beresford, a devastatingly well-versed improviser, adopted a range of striking personas at the piano. At one extreme he began to resemble a shopkeeper: quick, automatic hands placed, in turn, a glass, a comb, some vibrating devices and other mechanised objects onto the piano strings to alter the sound, as if he were loading cans onto a shelf. Then suddenly he would become gorilla-like, scratching away at the strings, oblivious to the winces of discomfort the sounds caused in his audience. Moments later he was thundering away at the keys again, while Fukuda hacked at her four strings simultaneously with the heavier of her two bows. There is something to be said for musicians who can awaken such helpless reactions in a sophisticated Foyles crowd.
There was great presentation on both sides. Fukuda’s poker-face maintained a strong sense of poise despite enormous distances between the two players, culminating initially in the gallows-humoured announcement: ‘end of part one’. What followed were two shorter parts which were enjoyable but unfortunately didn’t quite develop - such a variety of sounds, pitches and timbres had already been explored. Nevertheless, this was a delightful union of two undeniably free and distinct musical minds, neither of whom shied away from surprises.
– – Will Kemp
As the crowd steadily gathered in anticipation on the top floor of Foyles books store, the warehouse-like mise en scene couldn't have contrasted more with the imagery to come of Yazz Ahmed’s music.
UK trumpeter Ahmed, who has collaborated with names such as Kenny Wheeler and Steve Williamson, took us on an exploration of Arabic sonics from her Bahraini roots which she scattered throughout the performance of her quartet arrangement, comprising of Ralph Wyld (vibraphone) Dave Mannington (electric bass) and Will Glaser (drums). Our first taste was immediate in opener ‘Wah-Wah Sowahwah’ in which Persian voicing meandered eerily into the the main percussive riff, personified by Wyld’s use of double bass bows. His elongated strokes along the edges of the vibraphone bars created funereal tones lingering above the ensemble. Among percussive passages complimenting a throng of shuffling brush strokes and accented off beats from Glaser; Ahmed introduced an electronic element adding reverb delay to her trumpet. Her programmed, intertwining melodies created a distinct but pleasing change in the piece’s texture.
‘Whispering Gallery’, inspired by the 1st-floor room of St Paul’s Cathedral followed, emitting flashes of Pat Metheny in Mannington’s increasingly rich bass lines while Ahmed lulled with a soft melancholic traveling solo on the flugelhorn. As the piece ended Wyld took the reigns delighting the crowd with a two minute Gary Burton-esque improvisation, a perfect segue into the standout track of the evening ’Finding my way Home’ named after her debut album; where sparse drums and regal horns flowed into a breakdown that conjured images of rainfall turning a desert to caramel.
The swinging ‘Ruby Bridges’ was another peak, offering shades of Miles’s Sketches material, while Ahmed’s electronic experimentation, via harmonising and phasing effects, again came into play on ‘Laban Al-Mansour' and ‘La Saboteuse’.
– Andrew Mensah
The evening saw the first fruits of percussion wizard Adriano Adewale’s tenure as Associate Artist at the English Folk Dance & Song Society (EFDSS) in the form of Within the Waves, billed as a musical exploration of English and Brazilian sea-faring cultures. With its doubled-up choir (an amalgamation of Cecil Sharp House Choir and Northumberland based Werca’s Folk, dressed in various shades of blue), two pro singers, two percussionists and sea-life-centre styled visuals above the stage, at least one member of the audience entered the auditorium fearing the moans of a beached whale more likely.
Yet from the first sound, the project began to unpick any cynical assumptions. The choir was for the most part strong and used to good effect, responding with agility to a rolling bench of choral directors - Sally Davies, Sandra Kerr and Pete Churchill - and giving a concerted if laboured effort at Brazilian-Portuguese pronunciation. Traditional songs from both countries were tied together by arrangements that gave the two featured vocalists, the enchanting Rebecca Vallim, and Sarah Jane Morris (who rose to the occasion with aplomb), plenty of space to weave their spells over the room.
In the middle of the programme, Adewale’s own composition ‘Storm + Poem’ was a real high point. Along with Andreas Ticino’s imaginative supporting percussion, all the elements of the event came into their own here in an intriguing maelstrom: Adewale himself finally got going. His distinctive charm and movement was, as always, utterly infectious. The piece ended on Vallim’s poignant reading switching suddenly into English and I was transported out somewhere in the equatorial Atlantic, a sea-deity haunting me at every turn. What might have been a leviathan big-sing bonanza, Within the Waves steered a surprisingly well-navigated course through the sea related music of these two cultures.
– Will Kemp