Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble 23/06/09 - St Paul’s Cathedral, London

For those unaware of this unique project, the fusion of early Gregorian chant and a jazz saxophonist in St Paul’s Cathedral may seem like a blasphemous musical experiment.

However, it was this collaboration between the Hilliard Ensemble, one of the world's finest vocal chamber groups; and Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek, who in 2004 produced Officium, ECM’s biggest-selling album of all time and one of the most popular crossover albums of the 90’s.

Last night saw the Hilliard Ensemble's Officium programme return to London with new material from throughout Europe, including works from Scotland's James MacMillan and Estonia's Arvo Pärt.
St Paul’s Cathedral proved the perfect host for such a profound and sensitive performance and gave an acoustic freedom of which the musicians made full use. Distant echoes of a single baritone chant echoed from the back of the Cathedral long before the Hilliard Ensemble could be seen walking ceremoniously through the aisles towards the raised stage at the front. The audience sat transfixed as the close harmonies, sublime unresolved dissonances, drones and weaving vocal lines unfolded before them.

Several minutes of A cappella bliss passed before Jan Gabarek’s distinct tone began to whisper through the audience. His concise phrases and generous use of silence allowed the cutting edged tones of his soprano saxophone to linger eerily.

Garbarek (renowned for his affiliations through jazz, classical and world music) drew on his improvisational skills and focused classical tone to deliver wide disjunct leaps in pitch and piercing flourishes of colour, which complemented the fluid vocal chants flawlessly.

Applause after such a beautiful opening seemed out of place and the audience remained silent in fear of breaking the tension. The atmosphere was only relaxed much later on when, after nodding gently to the Hilliard Ensemble to mark the end of a piece, Garbarek let out a smile of appreciation. The audience responded with resounding applause.
The Hilliard Ensemble walked freely around the Cathedral several times, sometimes leaving a soloist on stage. Garberek continued in similar fashion with intermittent modal lines and, even when playing tenor saxophone, never overpowered the vocal group.

By the end of the night, resounding applause had become a standing ovation and, after a short encore, the group bowed graciously, leaving the echoes of the audiences’ appreciation to fill the Cathedral.

Jan Garberek and the Hilliard Ensemble is undoubtedly a highlight of The City of London Festival, which for three weeks each midsummer revitalises the cultural life of the City and concludes with London Symphony Orchestra at St Paul’s Cathedral on 9th July (free events continue until 7th August).  

Garbarek fans eagerly await the autumn release of his live album featuring a new jazz quartet and, judging by last night’s performance, they will not be disappointed.

Luke Pinkstone

Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra - Royal Festival Hall 20/06/09

The guy sitting next to me said this was the fourth concert in the Ornette Coleman-curated Meltdown festival he'd been to. Apparently, having bought all his tickets at the same time, and having already seen Yoko Ono, Patti Smith, and Ornette himself, this was the closest he'd been to the stage. 'I guess this was the least popular of the four', he surmised. Now, living on the South Coast, and also on a budget, I am forced to be quite circumspect when it comes to concert trips up to London, but for me at least, when the Meltdown roster was announced, this concert above all the others, was the real stand-out show. Sure, I'd have loved to have seen Ornette as well, but that would have meant pushing the boat out just a little too far and much as I admire him, the thought of three of my musical heroes ­ Charlie Haden, Carla Bley, and Robert Wyatt ­ all on stage together, meant there was simply no competition (sorry Ornette).

But first there was the support to get through, and no lightweight unknowns either. The Bad Plus has benefitted greatly from the renaissance, or rather 'reinvention' of the Piano Trio format led by the late Esbjorn Svensson [hard to believe it's one year this month since his untimely death]. Attracted by the hype, I'd purchased their 'Suspicious Activity' album but had found myself disappointingly underwhelmed by it; and, after sitting through their brief set on this occasion, I found myself similarly ambivalent. Perhaps it's just that they seem to be trying too hard to be different and quirky. The opening piece, a transcription of Stravinsky's 'Apollo' was a case in point. Whereas some of the composer's output does lend itself to a jazz setting (his Ebony Concerto was actually commissioned by Woody Herman), I'm not sure whether I could say the same about his neoclassical ballet score. Ethan Iverson is a fine pianist, but I found myself being irritated to the extreme by drummer Dave King's determination to hit, tap and stroke every part of his kit, for little real effect other than to look clever (a tip for you Dave: watch Han Bennick). It did get better. A Ligeti transcription worked well and the closing tune, 'Giant' by bass player Reid Anderson was easily the highlight, underpinned by its composer's insistent yet simple bass line. It even prompted me to search out the group's latest release 'Prog', on which it features. Perhaps if they stick to this stuff and stop trying so hard to be different they may have more success, at least to these ears.

And so to Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra. As Charlie announced at the beginning of the set, each of the Orchestra's four albums has been released under a Republican President: Nixon, Reagan, and Bush and Son; but just because Obama had been elected, it wasn't time to retire!

It was perhaps a little disappointing that this wasn't the regular Orchestra on the stage. Present were Tony Malaby (tenor), Michael Rodriguez (trumpet) and Matt Wilson (drums); and of course the wonderful Carla Bley (now 73 but still tall, imposing, and elegant if almost skeletal) on piano. Looking at her portrait on 'Tropic Appetites' and 'Escalator Over The Hill' it's no wonder she made so many men weak at the knees (jazz musicians especially!). Making up the rest of the band was a British contingent, many of whom I'm embarrassed to admit were unfamiliar, although I did spot John Paricelli (guitar) and Fayyaz Virgi (trombone). The first four numbers mirrored the opening sequence of the most recent Not In Our Name album. Now 71, Haden was moving a little stiffly but his playing and wit was as nimble as ever; whilst Bley's arrangements, directed by her from the piano stool were predictably sublime. However, perhaps due to unfamiliarity and lack of rehearsal, the soloing on the eponymous title tune was a little lacklustre. Things soon picked up however, with a reggae-tinged rendition of Pat Metheny¹s 'This Is Not America'; Bley¹s own 'Blue Anthem'; and a fine Paricelli solo on a bluesy 'Amazing Grace'.

The band was then joined on stage by Robert Wyatt, rapidly becoming a National Treasure (well, at least to some). In addition to his distinctive vocal, he also added some trumpet of his own to Haden's 'Song for Che', before departing the stage. It would have been nice to see and hear more of him, but this was Haden's gig after all. A lovely rendition of 'Going Home' followed, otherwise known as the Largo from Dvorak's 9th ('New World') Symphony (or to the non-classically-inclined, the Hovis TV advert). Written by the composer while living in America, it was of course, entirely appropriate.

After that highlight, confusion appeared to intervene on stage. Haden evidently had a 'surprise' planned, but 'he' hadn't arrived yet, and might either still be in his hotel room or en route. Clearly 'he' was Ornette. There then ensued a period of rifling through scores trying to find 'We Shall Overcome', during with Charlie entertained the audience with some stand-up comedy. Perhaps not surprisingly, when the scores were found, it seemed like a very impromptu performance, and some solos were better than others; similarly with Ornette's 'Skies Over America' which closed the set. It was as if Haden had been thrown a curve-ball by the curator's no-show and was doing his best under the circumstances.

At the end Haden said that he had hoped to have been able to play with Ornette, but that someone 'Clearly didn't want that to happen'. However, he was able to do the next best thing, and it was a poignant moment when a frail, and almost overwhelmed-looking Coleman came on stage for a warm embrace between the two men. Now 79, Ornette had had a busy festival, and probably wasn't up to playing any more, even if he wanted to. But for a man whose music was once ridiculed, he must have felt proud hear a packed Festival Hall give him the ovation he deserves as one of the true mavericks and innovators in jazz history.

There were no encores, but it was an appropriate moment to stop. The guy sitting next to me said it was the best of the four concerts he'd attended. I wasn't about to disagree with him.

David Bauckham

Andy Sheppard Quintet – Ronnie Scott’s, London 25/05/2009

Henri Matisse, Paul Gauguin and Yves Klein are artists whose work does not impact with a jolt, but permeates the inner mind to create a lasting impression. It would come as no surprise then that the Andy Sheppard Quintet, playing music inspired by these artists from their recent ECM release, conjured a similar affect.

Andy Sheppard, on tenor and soprano saxophones, led with his characteristically refined sensitivity to melodies and phrasing and a highly illustrative extended technique. His improvisation built conceptually on the groove driven themes of the compositions with simple interpretations shadowed by elevating melodic expansions that strayed into abstraction with supple overtones and dense harmonic sheets of sound. Two solos by guitarist John Parricelli on La Tristesse Du Roi and Bing thrilled in their understated but highly intelligent construction, evoking Joe Pass, through Al Di Meola and Pat Metheny. He injected rhythmic stimulation into various passages of play by coherently executing off-beat harmonic incisions. Eivind Aarset, on guitar and electronics, employed a judicious measure of haunting echoes and blankets of electronic swells.

The charismatic muscularity in both the tone and delivery of Arild Andersen’s double bass playing drove proceedings as if to compensate for the rhythm section’s stripped-down profile. Kuljit Bhamra on tabla, supplemented by cymbals and other percussive instruments, performed the anchor role with concise rhythmic patterns upon which the pieces evolved. It was principally Bhamra however, who cultivated the group’s distinctive character by sourcing multi-continental influences.  

A perfectionist might find fault in an excessively formulaic delivery of the compositions. However given the quality of the music such as complaint would not travel far. “You’re all looking beautiful,” remarked Mr. Sheppard with evident appreciation of the comment’s clichéd nuance. The beauty of this night however, belonged very much to the aural rather than the visual realm.

Review: Joseph Kassman-Tod

Robin Fincker interview - Completing the Loop

The Loop Collective’s first dedicated festival (held at the Vortex in Dalston on 12 - 15 February 2009) celebrated the success of the Loop project four years after its birth. As both an artistic and a business initiative the collective has thrived. The musicians revel in the freedom of expression afforded by the Collective’s abandoned artistic attitude and in the opportunities for collaborative ventures with like-minded musicians. The Collective can also boast the success of their self-promoted North London residency and two record labels. Robin Fincker, a founding member of the Collective, reflected on the importance of these two dimensions and the wider socio-political dynamics of contemporary music in Britain.
Robin Finker and band
The Loop Collective’s mission statement might read: “To encourage artistic diversity and transcend categorisation”, such is the range of musical reference points hit by its members; from drum and bass and electronica, through folk and world, to be-bop and contemporary classical. Conversely, there is a consistent thread running throughout. How is this balance achieved? With crystalline precision Fincker explained how to resolve this conceptual tension, “Stylistically, the music that you heard throughout the festival comes from many different backgrounds and even though there are common things to most of the bands, you can’t say that Loop is trying to represent a sound.”

Loop creates space for artists to express themselves freely, embracing the fact that their musical influences and personal directions will inevitably vary. The aim is to explore rather than confine that variety. This entails a holistic musical attitude, “(Loop) is actively fighting against the stylistic labelling, the kind of systematic, “oh, this is ‘improv’ music” or “this is neo-bop”. Those kinds of terminology issues we strongly believe are detrimental to the creativity and that’s the common thing between the members (of the Collective).”

Artistic creativity is the conceptual ambition behind the Loop project. Anything that constrains its actualisation must be overcome. In this sense we can see how the tension observed is only a matter of perspective. The members express themselves freely. The expression will vary between members due to different tastes and personalities (a function of the diversity inherent in humanity) but it exercises liberty and thereby actualises artistic creativity. The fact that observers may wish to demarcate categorical boundaries between the different sounds created is irrelevant. The musicians cannot buy into such thinking without being constrained by it which explains why Fincker sees “stylistic labelling” as detrimental to the creative process.

The strength of this attitude within the collective can even influence the audience’s experience of Loop performances, “it’s really nice to see it in practise, to see four bands who play completely different music yet who make a consistent evening of music and actually see the audience being taken through all that music without kind of going, “this has got nothing to do with the last band”.”

This defiant, confident attitude is also evident in the Loop Collective’s business initiatives. Since foundation in 2005 the Loop Collective has been outstandingly pro-active. A self-promoted residency in North London, an eponymously named record label and as of last year an off-shoot label, “Mini-Loop” for the recording of lower budget projects and live performances, demonstrates their initiative and productivity. Why have they taken this approach? Why not outsource such work? “It’s out of necessity,” retorted Fincker unequivocally, “I mean the record industry is going through a very funny patch and banging at the door of a crumbling record label wasn’t really an option. So it’s kind of nowadays part of a musician’s job to do that.” The question is then how individual musicians can maximise the efficacy of their business initiatives. Again ‘the collective’ seems to provide a convenient solution, “we thought that rather than all of us doing that on our own, for our own projects, we will share the load and through representing each other and helping each other we would actually get a lot more done.” This approach has facilitated the marketing and production of live performances and the production of records.

Fincker explained that the benefit derived from their record labels is both commercial and artistic. Musicians record their material, “to document (their) work, and to use it as landmarks to move forward for (their) own music.” However, the commercial benefits to recorded music seem equally significant. For jazz musicians these do not come through the traditional model of revenue from sales, “I don’t think many us do a record thinking, “oh, I’m going to make loads of money out of this,” rather the benefit is more as a promotional tool, in terms of getting more exposure and spreading the word, having a record is really important.” However, this method of promotion is not inexpensive, “most if the records I know find it difficult to break even because it costs a lot of money to make a proper sounding album.” At this point the benefit of ‘the collective’ reappears. Under the current arrangement the collective’s members enjoy worldwide distribution while retaining full rights ownership.

Should you stumble across the Loop Festival programme among the most striking features will be the names used for the Collective’s bands. Dynamic and catchy names such as “Gemini”, “Outhouse” and “Ma” dominate the pages. Is this a marketing ploy to engage a younger audience and avoid the “jazz-hands” stereotype? Aren’t such names the preserve of rock and pop bands? What is wrong with the “Robin Fincker Quartet”? Fincker’s response was typically robust, “They definitely weren’t a business strategy because we’re not trying to disguise the fact that we’re jazz musicians and I don’t think having a name for a group of musicians should be reserved for commercial music.”

The use of names, he suggests, is also appropriate for the bands concerned. It is not that there is anything inherently stale about names like, “the Robin Fincker Quartet” but sometimes they are misrepresentative because the groups concerned do not necessarily work under the leadership of one individual, “it would be irresponsible to call Outhouse “the Robin Fincker Quartet” or “the Dave Smith Quartet” because they are not.” The point is that the music itself is a collaborative effort so the name should in some way reflect that.

In comparing the Parisian and London contemporary music scenes, Fincker, who commands a presence on both, offered a revealing insight into why the culture of the collective is entrenched deeper within the psyche of the British musician compared to their French counter-part. He argues that it ultimately results from the level of public investment in the arts, “the English scene is further down the line in organising themselves in collectives... people start to run venues and things like that, whereas in France because they were getting a lot of funding, those things weren’t in place until recently.”

An interesting consequence of this investment is a comparatively higher level of interest in the sort of music that the Loop Collective champions, “throughout the 90’s as a result (of the funding), the popularity of the music was really, really good because promoters were able to take risks and defend music that wouldn’t necessarily fill the theatres or fill the venues.”
Over the last few years however Britain’s public investment in the arts has substantially improved thanks largely to direct Arts Council funding. A plethora of artistic projects have benefitted, such as the Loop Collective festival and the Outhouse-Ruhabi collaboration (involving Outhouse and five Gambian percussionists).

Fincker’s attitude is that even in times of tight financial constraints the government has a social duty to invest in the arts, “I don’t think (investment in the arts) needs to be justified,” he said with dismissive Gallic nonchalance. A ringing endorsement of the Art Council swiftly followed, “as far as I know the Arts Council has been really helpful.” His feeling is that musicians simply need to develop a greater savoir-faire and political literacy regarding the proposal of projects for investment, “I think the more people who are going to present projects that they really believe in and play the game of presenting them in the right way, to tick all the boxes as it were, the more the Arts Council will be inclined to fund them.”

At this point talk of creative projects provided a convenient segue into a discussion on plans for future Loop Collective initiatives. Fincker highlighted a forthcoming UK tour featuring the Parisian trio, Woland Athletic Club, an Outhouse collaboration with Icelandic guitarist, Hilmar Jensson, that will tour France and the UK and a double release tour by Phronesis and Gemini in the autumn. His aspiration is to see Loop develop a stronger European presence. The combination of his assured and focused nature with the quality of the Loop Collective’s musicians promises success on this front and with any luck another festival to celebrate it.               
Feature written by Joseph Kassman-Tod        

Dave Kane and Alex Bonney Interview

Abstract trills punctuated by staccato punches over arrhythmic percussive effects segue coherently into elegant Bartok-esque melodic phrases contextualised by luscious layers of harmonic texture.
“It doesn’t really have a name,” said trumpeter Alex Bonney in reference to his new album, with double bassist, Dave Kane. However, it could so easily have been said of the music the duo conjures. Recorded during their tour with the Ken Vandermark trio late last year, it was officially launched following their Loop Collective Festival performance on the Mini-Loop label. That these two groups had such a prominent role in the fruition of this album indicates their creative and practical impact on the project.

The experience of touring with U.S. heavyweight saxophonist, Ken Vandermark, evidently channelled the pair’s creative energy. Inevitable perhaps, given the persona surrounding this free jazz innovator, “(Ken Vandermark) is a really, really serious guy actually, he’s kind of very, very into what he’s doing and he’s kind of militant about his approach,” said Kane candidly.
The challenge in this experience lay not only in reproducing high quality musical performances over a sequence of consecutive nights but also in reinventing their material, as Kane illustrated, “we would be driving to the gig and we would be realising that we’ve got to just play for forty minutes, you know, totally free and then it got to the fourth or fifth gig and then we’re kind of thinking, where’s it going to come from?” Bonney agreed, “It was quite unusual for both of us to do. It was four nights wasn’t it?
They were back to back and it was the first time I had done anything like that which was that close together and it was a challenge because we were playing in front of those guys. Every night they were in the audience and we were thinking we can’t just do the same thing again, they’re going to know.”

It seems however, that this sense of challenge served to positively infuse their music with a tension and energy rather than stultifying it with anxiety, “I have huge respect for them but it’s not like a fear thing,” said Kane. Perhaps this tension led to a heightened sense of creativity. Equally, their respect entailed that the encouragement they received from Ken Vandermark gave them the inspiration and confidence to excel in the project, “All of the best musicians, I think they always seem to be very supportive of maybe less experienced musicians” said Bonney. Kane concurred, “They’re very giving these people, to welcome us into the fold. You just learn from them in the sense of seeing them and the amount of years of experience that they have.” It seems then that the Ken Vandermark tour focused their energy. It possibly explains why their album is so tight musically. Their delivery is focused with crystalline clarity on the expression of their musical ideas and it provides the energy which propels them beyond the traditional roles of their respective instruments.
The album is released on the new, Mini-Loop label, an off-shoot from Loop Records. Alex Bonney explained the rationale behind this derivative, “(it’s) designed for smaller scale things like this, like live recordings, things that wouldn’t justify spending thousands of pounds putting out... This Mini-Loop thing is part of this whole culture of realising in these financial times it makes more sense for us to cut the costs at the production stage. We’re still delivering a quality product. The music’s always happening, the sound is always good but we’re just trying to make the figures add up a bit better for us.” Do labels like this point the way for recorded jazz music to survive as commercially viable projects? “I think for our kind of music we’re never going to sell records in shops.”
This implies that any revenue from recorded music comes principally from sales at gigs, “having a box of (C.D.’s) at the gig to sell is the way forward for our kind of music because I don’t really think it works with downloads either.” This dependency on securing optimal commercial benefit from an audience’s interest proves the practical advantages to membership of the collective. Kane argued, “for the sort of music that lots of people that are involved in this festival this weekend are doing, it’s quite a specialised thing so the people that are going to buy it want to buy it,” that is, the people who are going to buy such music are the same people that are going to see the gigs. The collective becomes a brand, a guarantee of a certain standard and attitude towards musical expression which makes the production and sale of recorded music a more viable commercial project.

Dave Kane and Alex Bonney cite an eclectic range of influences, from Bach through Messiaen to DJ Shadow and Rage Against the Machine. This refusal to stagnate in musical ghettos is reflected in their music and in the Collectives to which they belong. A sign of the times perhaps, reflected Bonney, “the best thing about being alive now, the fact that we have access to the whole entire history of recorded music at our finger-tips.” For Kane, however, this inter-genre pollination has been consistent throughout his musical development, “I came from a rock sort of vibe. I started playing bass when I was 16 and then got really into Nirvana and Sonic Youth and then through that got into Chilli Peppers and then it was Jaco Pastorius.”
This holistic approach is integral to his conception of musicianship, “I’m just influenced by all sorts of music and not to shut anything out. The more you can open yourself to all these musical things the better musician you will be.” Inevitably this finds expression in their performances. They embrace jazz, contemporary classical, rock and electronica in their melodic themes, harmonic structures and rhythmic patterns and escape into the noise end of free jazz with visceral percussive ornaments from Kane’s double bass while alternate squeals and belches emanate from Bonney’s trumpet. It seems perfectly appropriate then that the album should be launched at the Loop Collective Festival which celebrates such transcendence of musical categorisation. Is this the direction that jazz music is taking in the early twenty first century? “I think it’s inevitable,” said Bonney with concise assurance, “I think that certainly the Collective is. We’re all pretty much the same kind of age so we’ve grown up listening to dance and urban music, so it’s inevitable that that’s going to be part of what comes out.”
The recording demonstrates a strikingly advanced level of musicianship. Both performers react and prompt the other, weaving melodies and textures throughout. Considering the absence of composed music, the eclectic nature of their musical influences and the pressure of performing in front of Ken Vandermark, how is this balance and cohesion achieved? The solution lies in focusing on the opportunity afforded by the music, that is, on the creating rather than the creation, hence Bonney’s prevailing attitude towards the duo, “I love the freedom of it.” This led us into a discussion on the parameters of the set-up, “having a duo is a lot different to even adding an extra person with a trio.

There is an immediacy to it that we can kind of change direction and what we’re doing just instantly without having to even think about it. The music can really go anywhere very fast.” Both the immediacy and elasticity are manifestly apparent in the recording. They are products of the nature of the instruments and the line-up concerned but it is the way these are used that distinguishes this project. The music rapidly but coherently develops from warbling, glissandi effects at the lower end of the trumpet’s register countering arrhythmic slapping effects on the double bass, through ferocious melodic call and response passages to regretful melodic phrases from Bonney over brooding harmonic forms from Kane. The diversity, flexibility and dynamism afforded by the freedom are at the apex of the pair’s appeal.
The very fact that they feel so comfortable challenging their instruments’ conventional parameters must stem from the same inclination to overcome musical categories. They recognise and act on the fact that the expressive potential of the music is within the musician, not the instrument or the type of music being played, “I might be playing some ridiculous really low sound and Dave might be at the top of the bass.” This instinctive cohesion of two musical voices is fundamental to the success of the recording. Kane observed, “it’s one of those things that worked straight away.” The communication and musical understanding borne from technique, attitude and instinct enriches the music with a distinctive charm, “we don’t really talk about the music in the sense of are we going to do this thing but we have kind of developed a language between us, between the instruments and between the things that we’re playing and we’re aware of that when we’re playing.”
What matters then, is honesty to themselves as musicians. That as much as possible they can give voice to the musical conceptions in their minds and in that way impute artistic meaning and value to their music, so that the music, the instrument and the musician become one. A fine ambition, virtuously achieved.
Feature by Joseph Kassman-Tod


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