Snarky Puppy: Jaw Dropping and Blissfully Brilliant – Scala, London May 2014

The last time I saw Snarky Puppy live was Friday 2 May 2014, yes, just five days prior to this time. Why? Because they are exceedingly brilliant. After reading that, understandably you might consider not continuing to read this, but I’m sure you're all keen to know why I have made a point of seeing them so often and making them sound like they are absolutely outstanding composers, performers and artists, right?

It’s a busy, warm evening across the road from London's Kings Cross Station. Everyone is waiting in line to get into Scala, only to look across the road and see Michael League, the front man and bassist for the band, giving us a cheery smile and wave as he makes his way to a pasta takeaway restaurant. Having met these guys before, I can tell you they are the most down to earth, talented and budding musicians I have ever met, and that says a lot considering I am studying a music degree. These guys will have a drink with you and let you in on some secrets as to how they create such magic. Now let’s compare that to Courtney Love who walked out of a show in Leeds last Friday, signed a couple of tickets, told people not to take pictures of her, then stormed off into her tour bus saying ‘I’m too fucking tired, I am going to bed’. Yeah, Snarky Puppy kinda deserve more attention than they get.

There was no support act upon entry to the venue, however it was compensated by the jaw-dropping, two-hour-long set in which they presented blissfully. It didn't take the audience two minutes to break into dance when the Puppies’ dropped their Brazilian, Tangoish style tune to open with. As time went on and the band gradually dropped into their mellow, laid back vibes, the audience died down and didn't seem so engaged. On the other hand, I could look at some members of the audience and I could tell who were musicians and who were not as the musicians were pulling their unattractive ‘bass faces’ to Mr League’s super impressive bass solos. Musicians seem to understand what they don’t understand when it comes to Snarky Puppy. By that I mean, they understand just how complicated and technically challenging what they do is, but they do not understand how they do it, as it is so freaking good!

This all changed however, when the Grammy Award-winning band kick out their new tunes to the audience from the latest album We Like It Here with charts such as ‘Shofukan’ and ‘What About Me’ where ‘Sput’, the drummer, never fails to impress with his time-lapsing drum fills. Of course, ‘Thing Of Gold’ was played, where a sense of magic lifted from the audience as they all sung the melody, soon to be blown away by the face-melting keys solo.

Snarky Puppy are without a doubt, one of the most talented up coming artists at the moment, and if you're into jazz, funk, rock, blues or even trance dance music, the Puppy’s have something in store for you!

– George Charlie Gill

Irene Serra, 606 Club, London – 25 May 2014

Waif-like beneath a honey-coloured spotlight, Irene Serra – Italian jazz vocalist and finalist at the Shure Montreux Jazz Competition in 2009, looked at home at the 606 Club in Chelsea, to which she is no stranger. Here pianist John Crawford joined her for a lunchtime set, with Richard Sadler on double bass and Chris Nichols on drums.

This tight, authentic-sounding quartet performed an eclectically interesting mix of tunes; from jazz standards, bossa nova and originals from the band’s other project, ISQ, to Serra’s moving cover of pop tune, ‘Wrecking Ball’ by Miley Cyrus. Opening number, ‘If I Were A Bell’, from the musical Guys and Dolls, lifted the mood instantly, with Sadler’s unswerving walking bass line effectively underpinning the velvety timbre of Serra’s considered, seamless singing.

Tastefully-placed accented fills from Crawford on piano were reminiscent of Count Basie’s one-finger swinging solos during bossa nova, ‘O Pato’, for which, in an inclusive gesture, the band were joined by 606 owner and flautist, Steve Rubie. Charlie Parker’s blues, ‘Billie’s Bounce’, with vocalese by Jon Hendrix, featured an astoundingly fast-spoken scat solo by Serra. Her energy here was sapped a little by the overly understated performances of the instrumentalists behind her, though, unaided perhaps by less warm vibes than usual coming their way from the tiny audience (the sunny bank holiday had unfortunately enticed people away).

In imaginatively plucking the strings of their respective instruments, Sadler and Crawford built up ringing rhythmic and harmonic textures accompanied by scampering drums, creating an edgier feel in ‘This Bird Has Flown’ – a single off ISQ’s first album, ISQ. Inexhaustibly charming Serra and band’s gig made for an enjoyable afternoon of surprising and intelligent arrangements. Their next ISQ album, is due for release in the autumn of 2014.

– Gemma Boyd


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)

The Write Stuff

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