Brian Culbertson funks it up at Pizza Express, London 1 May 2014

American smooth jazz multi-instrumentalist and composer, Brian Culbertson and band, featuring a stellar line-up of Culbertson on keyboard and trombone, Derek Nash on tenor saxophone, Otto Williams on bass, Mark Jaimes on guitar and Chris Miskel on drums, erupted onto the stage during the first night of their sold-out run in the intimate surroundings of Soho’s Pizza Express Jazz Club.

At the age of 20, Culbertson self-produced his debut album, Long Night Out. Twenty award-winning and chart-topping years of touring the world later, 2014 saw him complete his 14th album on his own BCM label ¬– a re-make of that initial offering entitled Another Long Night Out. During a performance of title track, ‘City Lights’, Nash shook a tambourine in double-time over a galactic guitar solo by Jaimes, and the joy the band exuded at playing together was infectious.

‘Always Remember’ from Culbertson’s 2008 album, Bringing Back The Funk contained a memorable melody carried through by intense interplay between trombone and saxophone, punctuated by the spot-on timing of Culbertson’s glissandic dives on keyboard, unison brass stabs and uplifting key changes.

Drummer Miskel threw out thunderous fills on the cymbals, driving the band with everything he had as the music built to an exciting screaming saxophone climax in ‘Beautiful Liar’, but the highpoint of this heart-ringing spectacular was during ‘Long Night Out’ when Culbertson leant into the audience and walked around his keyboard until he was playing otherworldly off-beat syncopated notes on it upside-down. He then laid his head down on the keys as if in full communion with his art.

Influenced by the pure sex and solidity of 1970s band Earth, Wind & Fire, the quintet created an open jazz-funk sound that faded in and out like molten lava; so smooth that Culbertson’s playing morphed into his slick body movements which elicited whoops from his adoring fans.

– Gemma Boyd

Robert Mitchell and Randolph Matthews – 25 April Front Room, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

In a brand-new collaboration, British leading edge improvising musicians, pianist and composer Robert Mitchell and vocalist Randolph Matthews, played to a large and diverse audience at the free Friday Tonic session in the Front Room, Queen Elizabeth Hall.

“Have you ever seen a bird turn into a helicopter?” Matthews asked the intrigued audience, in his introduction to an extended version of the 1965 Beatles song, ‘Norwegian Wood’, which incorporated Matthews’ story of walking down a familiar London street, then finding himself in a wood fetching bread from a cottage wherein he found the beautiful Diana. This question serves as a good metaphor for how Mitchell and Matthews took an eclectic mix of numbers – from jazz standards such as Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round Midnight’ from 1944 to folk-rock and pop tunes from the 1960s and 1980s, and put their own imaginative, modern stamp on them.

The duo gave an inspired interpretation of The Stranglers hit baroque-pop tune ‘Golden Brown’ with Matthews’ beatboxing making a refreshing change to the harsher percussion of a drum kit. Quickly switching from soulful falsetto to bass registers which created a Bobby McFerrin-like polyphonic effect, he then built up more vocal layers using a loop pedal, providing a complimentary accompaniment to Mitchell’s attentive piano playing of palpable emotional depth.

Matthews effortlessly set up the groove of the well-known bass line to Miles Davis’ ‘All Blues’, but his simulation of double bass pizzicato was unconvincing and his repetitively loud, distorting vocals detracted from Mitchell’s extraordinary finger-whirling solos and tapping of the wood inside the open grand piano to conga-like effect. The natural sound of a real double bass would have been preferable here, and the music started to sound slightly mechanical and predictable (the ‘bird’ had flown).

At a free event such as this in a room full of countless distractions, it can be difficult to pick up on the subtleties of any performance, but this charismatic duo’s set was assured, rhythmically tight and fun, highlighted by a mother and her young son dancing in the background.

– Gemma Boyd

God Knows Where I Am From: Berserk! + InterStatic Live at XOYO – EFG London Jazz Festival

Within the EFG London Jazz Festival 2013, funky Hoxton basement venue XOYO played host to a mind-blowing live show of the Italian jazz-prog ensemble Berserk! created by guitarist, composer and arranger Lorenzo Feliciati together with master vocalist/mutli-instrumentalist Lorenzo Esposito Fornasari (aka LEF) and guest Norwegian guitarist Eivind Aarset. Both Berserk! plus its supporting Nordic triumvirate, InterStatic (both bands on RareNoiseRecords), with pianist, organist and composer Roy Powell, guitarist Jacob Young and drummer Jarle Vespestad, creating psychedelic, transcendent moments as well as smooth breaks between stylistic genres.

With an inviting smell of incense wafting around the club helping to create an intoxicating psychedelic atmosphere, InterStatic set about seducing listeners with their spacey magical sounds. Unusually for a frontman and bandleader, Powell sat in front of a Hammond organ, rendering 1970s Pink Floyd influenced sounds to be mixed with solid tunes from guitar backed by driving drums. In songs like ‘Watermusic’ or ‘Anthem’, jazz, rock, shoegaze and psychedelica mingled so seamlessly that the breaks were barely noticeable. After taking the audience to many different musical spheres, the Hammond player departed with a sincere: “God bless you.”

InterStatic may have journeyed into inter-stellar space with Powell introducing himself mysteriously as “only God knows where I am from,” but Berserk! also evoked the sense that we as human beings are part of the wider universe via their astonishingly transcendent audiovisual performance. Fornasari mingled his majestic playing of a seraphine (an early keyed wind instrument, which makes its sound via air being blown across metallic reeds), with his extraordinary vocal range. The talented composer Feliciati created an amazing mix of musical styles, ranging from the classical ‘Ave Maria’, 1920s swing/jazz music to 1980s electronica, and snatches of popular tunes by the likes of Pink Floyd, Kraftwerk, or Joy Division, evoking strong memories from this listener’s childhood. In this well-conceived performance, the visceral atmosphere was also heightened by the use of movie effects and field recordings from a Spaghetti Western train whistling or an iPhone ringing. Not only transcendent moods were awakened but also background screenings of a lady eating a strawberry cake with her bare fingers or the beautiful green scenery of a pathway with trees behind it, contributed to make their inter-media manifesto indeed both brilliant and berserk!

– Monika Demmler (story and photos)

Christian McBride Trio: swinging a Full House at Ronnie Scott’s – EFG London Jazz Festival

It’s no wonder that bassist Christian McBride can so easily sell out Ronnie’s for two nights; an increasingly omnipresent figure in the jazz world for twenty years now, he’s worked with a who’s who of jazz giants such as Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny and to R&B/soul luminaries such as Isaac Hayes and James Brown, not forgetting hip-hop/neo soul stars The Roots and D’Angelo, or the likes of Sting and Carly Simon.

So on this Tuesday night, the second of two sold-out shows as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival, he stretched out in the relaxed setting of his acoustic trio with two hand-picked young talents: Christian Sands on the piano and drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr. What held their Trio together were its hardcore swinging, bluesy way of playing and their effortless communication, as they performed music from McBride’s fifth album, Out Here (Mack Avenue). This included ‘I Guess I’ll Have to Forget’, with McBride dedicating other tunes to Prince and the jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard.

Their performance also benefited from the club’s highly conducive setting for this kind of tight-but loose trio jazz, accentuated by the venue’s intimate atmosphere. As things built to an energised crescendo, one of the most astonishing highlights of the evening was when the charismatic pianist plucked the inner-strings of the grand piano in heart-stopping style. As things got more heated and the set moved from jazz to soul to funk, the audience began to move. It was almost a shame that there wasn’t more room for dancing. All in all, the extraordinary atmosphere and McBride’s infectious swinging style made the audience truly forget their daily sorrows.

– Monika Demmler

Troyk-estra review by Mike Collins Purcell Room, EFG London Jazz Festival, Saturday 23 November 2013

What extra do you get with an ‘estra’?  Troyka, the sizzling. electronica orientated trio of Kit Downes on keyboards, Chris Montagu on guitar and loops and Josh Blackmore on drums, who have made such a splash with their blend of rock, jazz and clubby loops and grooves, added the ‘estra’ by collaborating with the Royal Academy of Music’s big band and its conductor Nick Smart, made possible originally by a commission from Jazzwise. This gig launched the CD, a live recording of their 2013 Cheltenham Jazz Festival performance.

One extra is the impact of stabbing, syncopated riffs from the squeakily tight horn sections, artfully arranged so that the jagged phrases locked and retained the momentum of the quick-fire techno exchanges of the trio. From the off, ‘Rarebit’ began with a looped rocky feel and the force of the big band’s richly voiced chords pinning us to our seats.  ‘Dropsy’ starting with atmospheric washes of sound from the trio developed into a real groover, the brass storming in with joyous declamatory phrases.

The repertoire was mainly the trio material reworked and arranged for this bang up to date big band, although given that this was a CD launch, only two or three of the tunes were from that recording. What is lost in the translation  to a larger ensemble is some of the manoeuvrability of the trio with less scope for pieces to evolve new directions and develop organically in performance.  A gain, alongside that rich palette of sound, is space for some incendiary soloing from the ranks of the sections. Mick Chillingworth on alto and James Alsopp on tenor in particular cut through and produced wild and exciting moments surfing the hubbub of riffs and grooves.  On ‘Chaplin’, a quieter piece, built around an acoustic piano figure and singing guitar lines from Montagu, evoked a more tender emotional solo from Alsopp and a standout moment of the gig.

The extension of Troyka to Troykestra provides for plenty of excitement and energy with more to come. The set closed with new pieces written specifically for the combined band as one of the twenty one commissions celebrating the festival’s twenty one years.  A great pointer towards some of what might be coming in future years.

– Mike Collins

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