Nicolas Simion Group/Duo Plus: Jim Hart& Ivo Neame – Rich Mix, London Jazz Festival

Vibraphonist Jim Hart and pianist Ivo Neame are currently held in high regard as players and composers both as bandleaders and sidemen. So playing in the more exposing duo format is taking a bit of chance with their reputations. They don’t have the same touch on all these instruments, but the duo flowed pleasingly if there was one of the number one instruments being played and Neame restricted his sax to playing to slow burners like the enjoyable opening of ‘Maison Music’. But ‘Maison Music’ jumped several leagues when Neame switched back to piano, and it was when interweaving piano and vibes that the duo sparkled and you got the ‘plus’ of Duo Plus.

From their very first phrase, Nicholas Simian’s Group blew warmth into Rich Mix’s slightly clinical setting. Their whole upbeat and good humoured set put me in mind of the story, the one about the Rumanian, the Frenchman, the Bulgarian and the expat American playing in a Swiss blues band, who decided to have fun playing some great accessible jazz. Driven along by Angus Thomas’s dirty bass lines and Benjamin Honocq, a drummer who clearly loves really hitting those skins, they had a couple of stars in leader Nicholas Simion lyrical reed playing and Martin Lubinov who amazed with several three or four minute accordion solos without repetition, hesitation but with plenty of delightful deviation.

For most of the gig the band’s joyous sound and spirit was more reminiscent of the uplifting lilt of South African township jazz than their advertised Transylvanian roots. The calls for an encore were totally deserved for this was music not simply with a smile but a dirty big grin.

– Colin May

Nicolas Simion Group (Transylvanian Jazz) + Duo Plus – Rich Mix, 15 November LJF 2012

Nowadays ‘play’ could mean the button on a DVD player, just as it could signify childish abandon or experimental learning. Thursday night at Rich Mix demonstrated how differently the word 'play' is understood within the jazz world.

Support act were ‘Duo Plus’ whose name, a little reminiscent of a painkiller, presumably denotes the multi-instrumental skills of these highly proficient musicians. On the opening free improvisation Ivo Neame sailed through arpeggios on saxophone while Jim Hart created luscious rhythmic timbres. ‘Lines No Notes’ would have been an impressive start to any jazz academy recital, flowing smoothly into another original composition where Hart took a bow from cymbals to vibraphone and Neame laid out his work horizontally on the piano. The beautiful ‘Song for Lost Nomads’ evoked modal tonalities of East and West, with a rhythmic accompaniment that grooved, despite its complexity. This earned the talented and studious duo an indisputable A-grade.

The Transylvanian headliners were, by contrast, on holiday. Simion laughed through his sax, eyebrows raised, passing solos like anecdotes told at a boozy dinner table. The tunes – a wedding medley, a children’s song, Balkan ‘happy birthday’ and other festive melodies – were their toys. Their musical dialect was folk-funk with a jazz accent, oscillating between euphoric tightness and a drunken slur, but what the quartet lacked in rehearsal they compensated for in raucous energy. Some drum solos were funk fireworks, while the woolly hat-clad accordionist and sedentary bassist often lost themselves in enthusiastic improvisations, shooting furtive glances at their band leader, whose steady musicianship and generosity held the ensemble together. Their playfulness earned an encore during which Simion played a clarinet and a soprano sax, simultaneously. For that alone he surely deserves a cheeky B-plus.

– Heidi Goldsmith

Kurt Elling plus Sheila Jordan – Queen Elizabeth Hall, London Jazz Festival 2012

As ‘jazz’ becomes ever broader, interviews such as ‘Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya’ lend the London Jazz Festival a festive atmosphere, bringing it back to its roots. Sheila Jordan told vibrant and hilarious stories of being squashed into a green VW with Ornette Coleman, travelling to “Max” (Roach) and “Abbey” (Lincoln)’s wedding. Contrasted with Kurt Elling’s passion for philosophical and technical descriptions of the tradition, this interview served as the perfect amuse-bouche to a concert that was to be a euphoric reminder of the true spirit of jazz.

Sheila took the first set, accompanied by the Brian Kellock trio - somehow twinning Scottish dry wit and American banter like two lost brothers. Kellock, his back to the audience, played with sensitivity and majesty, tenderly padding out the chords to a theatrical ‘Pent-up House’ and literally punching the lowest keys during a trio instrumental. Sheila kissed his bald head and began improvising a narrative blues that transported us to the garbage cans of Pennsylvania where she sat and met Charlie Parker. “He musta’ wrote that tune for me, chasin’ the bird!” she sang, with that soulful precision that only sincerity and absolute affinity with the music can bring. The QEH was transformed into an intimate jam, where clapping and whooping was a true outburst of joy rather than a formality.

After the interval Kurt Elling strode onto the stage like a Sinatra pastiche and initially seemed too flawless to be enchanting, with gelled hair and super-smooth vocals on ‘Fly Me to the Moon’. But this was simply a ruse to tame the audience’s soprano squeals, who would perhaps not otherwise have experienced the sinister glory of arrangements such as ‘On Broadway’. Elling evoked the church chorales of his childhood, using a long delay on the vocals that metamorphosed into a hip groove and a dark bassline of tritones, expressing the troubled history of this beloved music. Following a standing ovation he invited back our beloved diva, and the two masters of vocalese duetted on ‘Moody’s Mood’ with a flirtatious spontaneity that perfectly concluded this glorious homage to jazz.

– Heidi Goldsmith

Portico Quartet (Ft. Cornelia) + Taylor McFerrin – the Roundhouse, London

The coliseum-like Roundhouse provides the venue for this one-off festival evening; Portico Quartet’s most prestigious outing yet, and a stark contrast to their modest beginnings busking on London’s South Bank. The architecture is fitting, harmonious between the archaic and futuristic, just like Portico’s off-kilter combination of hang and electro music. Support comes from DJ and beat-boxer Taylor McFerrin, son of Bobby McFerrin, who warmed the crowd up nicely.

Portico played material from their recently released eponymous third LP, and their ambient soundscapes filled the cavernous hall. They were also joined by vocalist Cornelia for ‘Steepless’, a single from the recent album. Aside from a few interruptive technical issues, the set grew perpetually throughout the night, flourishing to a dramatic climax with a synchronous light show and an excited crowd to match.

For the new self-titled release and consequent tour, they have moved leagues away from their original hang-heavy jazz influenced sound, and deeper into the arena of modern electro music, and judging by the zealous crowd that near fills the Roundhouse, the formula has bought them new levels of success. With the flying saucer-like hang drum taking more of a back seat, the band now draws more similarities with groups like Jaga Jazzist or Cinematic Orchestra.

Portico Quartet’s move away from the style of their first two albums has beckoned in a new era for the band and has opened them up to a much wider audience. Their improvisational roots may be in jazz but their idiosyncratic delivery sets them apart as a genuinely genre-defying band.

– Miles Spilsbury

Fred Hersch Solo – The Venue, Leeds

Not only is The Venue in Leeds well known as an excellent performance space and for it’s varied year-round programming, it also has superb acoustics. A perfect setting then to hear revered US pianist Fred Hersch, and as he sits alone at the Grand Steinway, bathed in a single amber spotlight, the anticipation in the room is palpable. He scarcely tours the UK, so catching him outside of his natural New York habitat is a rare treat. Hersch has commanded respect as a formidable jazz pianist and educator for years, often known for his successful past students, including Brad Mehldau and Jason Moran, while recordings of his exemplary solo efforts include Let Yourself Go & Alone at the Vanguard – both absolutely essential album purchases for any jazz piano enthusiast.

Hersch set the evening in motion with an original entitled ‘Whirl’, inspired by a ballerina. The piece fluctuated elegantly, soaring and plunging, teetering precariously between jazz and classical boundaries. Listening to him play you could be forgiven for thinking there were four hands at the piano. Fred also paid tribute to Thelonious Monk with his tune ‘Dream of Monk’, a quirky little number that conquers the Monk idiom with off-centre harmonisations, purposeful dissonance and rich resolutions.

But what’s impressive about Fred’s acutely expressive performance is how coherent his predominantly improvised set is. He gradually built the visceral power and compelling mood over two 45 minute sets, which included his own compositions, timeless standards and a Joni Mitchell piece, while managing to not make it a rambling, self-indulgent affair. Fred Hersch’s new trio album, Alive At The Vanguard, has just been released on the Palmetto Label.

– Miles Spilsbury

The Write Stuff

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