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

Troyk-estra review by Miranda Schiller EFG London Jazz Festival, Queen Elizabeth Hall 23 November 2013


Can a spontaneous, abstract trio like Troyka work with something as traditional as a big band? The answer is yes, Troyk-estra combines the two with ease. And moreover, it shows how a big band can grow beyond its traditional identity.


The core trio Troyka are Kit Downes on keys, Chris Montague on guitar, and Josh Blackmore on drums. They are known for their frequent unexpected changes of mood, alternating between powerful energetic outbursts and calm, complicated lines of unpredictable rhythm and abstract melodies. With the big band, of course, there is less room for free improvisation. But this does not make the music less unique.


The horn section adds a vibrant and upbeat quality to the music, they provide a constant source of energy. Not at all static, and although more predictable by nature, their sound still has a certain wildness to it. They also improvise, and vary the music spontaneously. This works, it loosens the structure up, without ending up in chaos.


The core trio, while not completely dominating the band, are nonetheless the driving force of this group. Their creative and varied approach to their music is supported and solidified by the big band, so it seems as if they had even more freedom to wander in unknown territory, because a safe framework is set. This leads to a wonderful array of improvised beauty.


Originally a commission from Jazzwise, Troyka have built their Troykestra out of young musicians from the Royal Academy of Music to perform as part of Jazzwise's 15th birthday celebrations at Ronnie Scott's. Everyone involved felt the project should go on, so it did. Troyk-estra recorded a live album (called Troykestra) and played more shows. They have not announced any further concerts though, the future of the project is uncertain. It can only be hoped that it will be continued, as it is a signpost for a possible, and desirable, development for big bands in general.

Mirand Schiller

Mehliana plus Sons of Kemet by Thomas Rees EFG London Jazz Festival 21 November 2013


Heads are nodding in the row in front as a screech of controlled feedback and a layer of treble, like the beam of search light, fills the room. You can feel the bass-drum in your chest, like distant mortar fire, right before the snare snaps your head back and the stuttering fills and bewildering cross-rhythms leave you drowning in a sea of electronic noise.


The closest you'll get to clubbing in Barbican Hall, last night's gig featured two acts out on the fringes of jazz. An opening set from Mehliana, a collaboration between legendary pianist and composer Brad Mehldau, and drummer Mark Guiliana, known for his work with Wayne Krantz and Gretchen Parlato, was a hard-hitting blend of improvisation, electronica and drum and bass. On piano, Fender Rhodes and an arsenal of vintage synthesisers, Mehldau unleashed arpeggiated riffs, twisting, gospel-inspired lines and electronic soundscapes. His eyes screwed shut in concentration, Guiliana responded with driving grooves, risking it all on drum breaks of astonishing precision and rhythmic complexity.


In the second half, young London-based quartet, Sons of Kemet, brought raw energy to a stage wreathed in smoke. Tuba player Oren Marshall pounded out bass-lines amidst the clattering fills of the band's two drummers, Seb Rochford and Tom Skinner. Showcasing his extended technique, Marshall added effects, with sounds like scratching on vinyl and rumbling bass notes that evoked Mehldau's synths.


“Godfather”, one of two clarinet features for reeds player Shabaka Hutchings provided a welcome change of pace. Its gentle melody, inspired by “Ethio-jazz”, calmed the hall before the band exploded into a finale, tinged with rock and high-stepping reggae.


Neither group were flawless. Mehliana's set, in particular, lacked variety and saw attentions wandering by the end. But, for pushing the boundaries and capturing the atmosphere of a sweat-soaked underground club in the polite confines of a concert hall, both acts should be commended.


Thomas Rees

Mehliana plus Sons of Kemet by Steve Owen – EFG London Jazz Festival 21 November 2013

The Barbican - brutal but warmed on the inside by natural wood floors, low lighting and rich red velvet seats – a London venue with a real claim to retro-vintage charm. An apt venue for the pop art retrospective in the gallery upstairs showcasing the space-aged and space-shaped objects of the colourful synaesthestic generation, and downstairs for jazz evoking the sounds of the 1960s space age, when the future really was futuristic.

The soft wooden, analogue undertone of the auditorium feels like the kind of place which abhors digital like space abhors the vacuum, and there is something of the soothing mechanical electro tones of the church organ as Brad Mehlda plays rolling, globular, lava lamp sounds on warm and warbly synths accompanied by Mark Guillana, the maker of futuristic, metallic washes of cymbal sounds and rhythms on drums.

Both sit beneath a modernistic rose window of organic circles of light thrown up in the curtain behind them – Mehlda with his back to the audience and both largely ignoring the audience with a lazer like focus as they tweek this knob or that, or trigger new sounds or vocal tracks which overlay their thick and often deep and resonant sounds. The beeping and blipping of the synths and drum pad is reminiscent of the pioneering electronic and computer music of the 1960s when we weren’t so familiar with the sound of a computer’s singing voice. Communicating little from what I observe, the pair nonetheless pass the sound back and forth, but whereas the synths solos - with the range of sounds at Mehlda’s disposal - stand up on their own, the drum solos, whilst interesting, seem tense and heavy handed until the dulcet tone of the synths weave their way back in and calm things down again with their easy going burble.

There seemed little to connect the first act with the second act unless you know one of the drummers, Seb Rochford, in another of his bands – Polar Bear - is fond of deep resonating ensemble grooves and borrowed electronic sounds wooshing in from a computer. But the Sons of Kemmet was a totally analogue affair tonight, albeit one filled with sounds, which were just as experimental, particularly from the womping bass of the big tuba which seemed more contraption than instrument.

It was a theatrical performance from the start – filling the auditorium with nightclub smoke there was something of smoke and mirrors – or hall of mirrors - about the reflection of drum kits fronted by double brass – the smaller alto sax convexed into a bulging tuba and Seb’s head and hair distorted into a mad afro. The double drums worked in sympathy with one another and with diagonal partners on brass. Heavier-handed and more definite Seb worked with tuba to create bass grooves while a more languid Tom Skinner on the second kit had a lighter touch and matched Shabaka Hutchings’ melodies on alto sax and clarinet. Theirs was an enthusiastic ensemble performance and they rushed through their set with less seriousness and more exuberance, perfect for the jaunty Balkan folk vibe, which could sometimes be heard along with all sorts of other feelings. The tuba was the surprise star of the performace – half performance art such was the theatricality of Oren Marshall’s tuba - sounding at times what it must sound like listening to a tiger’s heartbeat through a stethoscope, it was a restrained growl or purr, before turning into the snore of a slumbering giant, and the crowd appreciated the comedy in it and the power of a big instrument.

Tonight was a double main act – ie. no support, equal billing. There was a sense in the audience that Mehlda and Guillana were the ‘serious’ act – the musicianship and composition (carbon-based or silicon-based) which went into their open-ended soundscapes which now have the feel of a vintage ‘future’ soundtrack, were appreciated for the rocket science it was. No less the musicians, Sons of Kemmet had something of the students about them – their less serious turn was a riot of joyful playing and taking the finishing slot made perfect sense.  

Steve Owen

The Write Stuff

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