posted Monday 2nd August
Reviews by Edward Randell & James Bourne
Saturday’s early set felt surprisingly introspective for the last night of this year’s Brit Jazz Fest. Cleveland Watkiss sang with his eyes closed much of the time, and only after several tunes did he speak softly to the audience. He was at most communicative on Wynton Marsalis’ ‘Supercapitalism’, acting out its frantic refrain “Gimme that, gimme this, gimme that”, relishing the sudden mood changes as Mark Hodgson’s double bass swaggered into sleazy half-time.
Watkiss’ thoughtful, diverse selection of material included songs by Cat Stevens (‘Into White’), Betty Carter (‘Amazon’) and Neal Hefti (‘Lonely Girl’). He is a singer alert not just to lyrics but to the full repertoire of vocal sounds: his scatting recalled some of the great bebop vocalists, while his use of percussive sounds and quasi-African sounds on the closing tune owed something to Bobby McFerrin. Touted in his early career as a British answer to McFerrin, Watkiss lacks McFerrin’s superhuman intonation, but they share similarities in tone and an adventurous, fluid approach.
Following Watkiss was his old friend and fellow East Londoner Talvin Singh. The pioneer of Indian electronica had brought his computer onstage – for checking Facebook, he joked – but hardly touched it except to add some subtle atmospheres behind his tabla playing. He was joined by Soumik Datta, a virtuoso on the Sarod, shorter and earthier-sounding than the sitar; by percussionist Pirashanna Thevarajah; and by Rekesh Chauhan, whose keyboard playing provided a harmonic bed for the others to improvise over. Singh and the impressively fleet-fingered Thevarajah alternated solos before joining forces with a driving percussion rhythm, the closest thing to a flamboyant moment in the spacious, meditative set.
The final element was the jazz trumpet of Byron Wallen. His impassioned Harmon mute trills over a contemporary Indian raga created the kind of stylistic mesh that Singh has always gravitated towards. In this instance there was no hint of contrivance: when trumpet and Sarod started trading licks on a composition by Datta it felt like an act of translation, two languages saying the same thing. Wallen was only just getting underway when time was called on the set and the audience were ushered out in preparation for the second house – a somewhat anticlimactic cut-off (for this reviewer) to an intriguing collaboration and a thrilling week.
Although the Brit Jazz Fest has hosted several big bands, and though these have shared a number of players with the Colin Towns Mask Orchestra, Towns’ distinctive compositional style sets his 18-piece ensemble apart. The wonkiness and intensity of his writing announced itself as ‘Heated Think Tank’ crashed in, with its aggressive whirligig theme over 1960s-film-score conga rhythms. Percussion is an important colour in Towns’ writing: Austrian Stephan Maass (standing in for Paul Clarvis) and drummer Ralph Salmins generated busy beats on a crowded stage.
Much of the set had roots in the theatre, reflecting Towns’ day job as a respected composer for stage and screen. ‘Sacred Concert’, a feature for Nigel Hitchcock’s sinuous tenor playing, was taken from the Orpheus Suite, written for Birmingham Royal Ballet; this was followed by the pièce de résistance, an extended tribute to the great theatrical composer Kurt Weill (which Towns also dedicated to his late mentor Johnny Dankworth). Weill’s melodies proved a perfect fit for Towns’ exotic arrangements. Beginning and ending with deranged variations on ‘Mack The Knife’ – restoring the tune from Rat-Pack purgatory to full macabre glory – the medley showcased the band’s wealth of great soloists including Guy Barker on trumpet and John Parricelli on guitar. Highlights included a seductive ‘Speak Low’, featuring Dave Hartley on piano and Julian Siegel (making his third appearance at Ronnie’s this week) on baritone saxophone, and Alan Skidmore’s wonderfully emotive rendition of ‘My Ship’.
Listening to opening act the Denys Baptiste Quartet it struck me that this was the closest thing to conventional small-group jazz I had heard all week, drawing on the classic tenor sax quartets of John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. Not that this was cosy music: ‘Apprehension’, the title of the second tune, could be applied as a mood to much of the set. One exception was contented ballad ‘Special Times’, for which Baptiste switched to soprano while bassist Gary Crosby and drummer Rod Youngs sat out. Baptiste, Crosby and pianist Andrew McCormack have been playing together for years, and their affinity was clear in the traded saxophone and piano solos on a time-twisting tune whose title, we were told, varies with Baptiste’s mood. The fiercest blowing was saved for the uptempo closer, and title track of his forthcoming album, ‘Identity By Subtraction’.
– Edward Randell
After seeing Harry Shearer at the club on Monday I tweeted a video which went mildly viral, of Spinal Tap talking about jazz: “You can’t hear it… What are you playing so softly for? Man up!” Evidently the mock-rockers haven’t heard trioVD, who demonstrated from the first thunderous snare roll that they were here to make some noise.
The powerhouse of Chris Sharkey on guitar, Christophe de Bézenac on saxophone and Chris Bussey on drums are one of the most exciting groups on the scene, with an anarchic energy calling to mind 1980s No Wave. Their box-of-fireworks sound is layered with electronic and vocal effects: de Bézenac alternating sax with guttural gibberish and screams; Bussey making his skins squeak and moan; Sharkey even playing his guitar lead. The magnificently mutton-chopped Bussey is a stick-spinning showman in the tradition of the great rock drummers. But their volatile compositions and ferocious improvisation mark trioVD out as a jazz group in the best sense of the label, with a mimicking, conspiratorial interplay that is at once tightly controlled and wild. Final number ‘Pet Shop Boys’ saw Sharkey spinning a strange Leeds yarn – making verbal the humour at the heart of their music – and was followed by a surprisingly lyrical encore that built to a euphoric climax.
First act Partisans made ideal partners for trioVD. For 13 years Julian Siegel (reeds) and Phil Robson (guitar) have led this quartet channelling jazz-rock greats including Tony Williams and John McLaughlin. Adding some Jaco to the potion was the formidable Laurence Cottle, depping for regular bassist Thad Kelly. On ‘Mbadgers’ he laid down a deep funk groove before taking off on a solo that showed why he is one of the busiest players in the land. Completing the quartet was Gene Calderazzo, who brought out the full drum artillery on ‘Wise Child (For Wayne Shorter)’.
Standout tune ‘Pearly Gates’ had a calypso feel to its intricate melody. The encore was another highlight, beginning with an open guitar sound reminiscent of McLaughlin on In A Silent Way, thrillingly exploding into a powerful riff, then fading into the breathy hush of Siegel’s bass clarinet. Between numbers, Robson thanked the audience for appreciating that jazz is about original compositions as well as the standards. While some of them found trioVD hard to stomach, the majority knew they were in the presence of dizzying, unhinged innovation.
– Edward Randell
Carol Grimes used her first appearance at the club since Ronnie Scott’s death to look back over her career, as signposted by her changing London addresses from Bethnal Green to Westbourne Grove. Starting with ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes?’ by former drinking buddy Sandy Denny, her set was a warm and witty personal tour, demonstrating a knack for holding an audience’s attention that was hard-won in her early busking days.
‘Steps’, a Bethnal Green song featuring a sensitive piano solo by Dorian Ford, demonstrated Grimes’ skill as a lyricist. It was a pair of contrasting Oscar Brown Jr. tunes, though, that provided the centrepiece and highlight of the set. ‘But I Was Cool’ was as fabulously full-throated and profane (bolstered by Annie Whitehead’s trombone) as ‘A Tree And Me’ was contemplative. Grimes finished by bringing us up to date with songs from her Deptford “poor woman’s penthouse”: Chagall-inspired waltz ‘The Dance’, and ‘The Weatherman’, a blues with lyrics by poet John Shaw. Another Shaw (Ian) was among the admirers who dropped in to witness her unvarnished soulfulness.
Mike Westbrook, another old hand who has always ploughed his own furrow, brought his euphonium and his Village Band for the second half. The group originated as a genuine village band – its all-brass line-up an accident of Dawlish having, apparently, no rhythm players. Their chops were not on the same level as (for instance) Brass Jaw’s, and on pieces such as the Creole dance tune ‘Serpent Maigre’ the lack of an anchor hampered them. Elsewhere this constraint created the right atmosphere, be it a New Orleans jazz funeral for ‘Dead Man Blues’ or a brass band procession for Westbrook’s setting of William Blake’s ‘London’.
The whimsy of a song about trifle, played twice, outstayed its welcome – not helped by Kate Westbrook’s tuneless vocals. The finale was ‘Waxeywork Show’, a suite presenting the internet age as a Victorian circus, whose Brecht/Weill theatrics provided a better vehicle for Kate’s growls and yelps. The unease of its dissonances was amplified by the spare instrumentation, and there was heartfelt solo work from trombonist Sam Smith and alto saxophonist Stan Willis. The lyrics, a shopping list of contemporary talking points from Tracey Emin to Iran, were less interesting. English eccentricity, always worth celebrating, can make for tough listening.
– Edward Randell
After several evenings of funk, soul and blues at the Brit Jazz Fest, Tuesday night delved into the wild world of the UK’s free-improv scene. The first set brought us an exciting new collaboration between pianist Matt Bourne, one of the stars of the Leeds improvised scene, and saxophonist Pete Wareham, of Acoustic Ladyland and Polar Bear. Entitled ‘The Ugly Guys’, the project sets out to explore and deconstruct the tango songbook. Wareham’s rust-raw tenor sound, supported by his judicious use of electronic loops and echoes, worked brilliantly in this most darkly dramatic of genres, where tunes have names like ‘A Butcher’s Death’ and ‘A Knife Fight’ – the brace of Astor Piazzolla compositions that ended the set. The duo’s loose but tonal approach eased the audience into an evening that was about to take a more challenging turn.
The London Improvisers Orchestra are a motley crew comprising 24 of the most respected leftfield players around, from younger stars like Shabaka Hutchings (clarinet) to such veterans as Lol Coxhill (soprano sax). It includes an array of instruments: bassoon, shamisen, even a theremin-like iPhone app played by Tania Chen. The set alternated between “conductions” by various members and passages of free improvisation. The first piece, conducted by Alison Blunt, was perhaps the most effective, with pitching and yawing strings building up through whispery vocal effects to a brassy climax before giving way to a violin and melodica duet. The next, which Caroline Kraabel told us po-facedly was entitled ‘Empty Chair Puncture’, was less dynamically varied, and was followed by a free section that had several punters heading for the exit. Terry Day’s poetry, aptly describing mankind as “one big huge racket” brought some childlike fun to what increasingly felt like a 1960s happening, before special guest Jason Yarde played his way through the crowd to add fiery soprano and tenor sax to the mix.
“Not everything we put on here is so commercial,” quipped the club’s announcer as the band left the stage. There were powerful moments: the final dirge of clarinets; the contributions of trumpeter Ian Smith (in a brass section that remains punchy despite the recent, sad loss of Harry Beckett). All the players were utterly committed to the music and clearly conversant in the same improvisational language. But for us tourists, much was lost in translation.
– Edward Randell
It would have been unthinkable for this year’s Brit Jazz Fest not to pay tribute to the man who for many was British jazz, Sir John Dankworth – and equally unthinkable for that tribute not to feature the rest of the ‘first family’. Double bassist Alec Dankworth led a stellar 15-piece big band through his father’s ‘Million Dollar Collection’ suite, written in 1967. Each piece of the suite takes inspiration from a painter, from Klee to Mondrian to Bosch. Alec, a decidedly better bassist than art historian, was not the most helpful of guides: “Forget about the painting,” he sighed after muddling Manet and Monet. If the presentation was disappointingly cut-rate, the band still played like a million dollars. Henry Lowther, an original member from 1967, added glorious flugelhorn cadenzas to ‘Two-Piece Flower’. ‘La Clownesse’, a nod to Toulouse-Lautrec and the Moulin Rouge, featured cheeky solos from John Horler on piano and Jim Hart on vibes, before Ralph Salmins’ drums propelled the suite to a hard-swinging finish on ‘Hog’s Head of Hogarth’.
The second set opened with ‘Experiments With Mice’, Sir John’s mischievous variations on ‘Three Blind Mice’. Jacqui Dankworth then demonstrated his romantic side, singing the ballad ‘It Happens Quietly’, which included a gorgeous soprano sax solo from Tim Garland. The song was taken from the album she and her father were collaborating on before his death, which may be released later this year. After a guest spot from Memphis-based keyboardist and singer Charlie Wood, it was Dame Cleo Laine’s turn. The octogenarian may use a cane (for whipping her children, she claimed) but she has lost none of her ability to work an audience. She sang ‘Love Me Or Leave Me / I Don’t Know Why (I Just Do)’ from Smilin’ Through, her album with Dudley Moore, before she, Jacqui and lead trumpet Noel Langley took turns to wail the blues on the down-and-dirty finale.
As Dame Cleo put it: “I was married to a clever old sod.” A very British understatement for a very British icon. Dankworth had his American fans too, however – including voice-of-Mr-Burns Harry Shearer, who could be spied in the audience. Mercifully, Shearer didn’t play Spinal Tap’s ‘Jazz Odyssey’, instead leaving it to the likes of Henry Armburg-Jennings and Leon Greening to play out the late show with sizzling hard bop.
The Brit Jazz edition of singer Natalie Williams’ monthly soul night started with a bang and a cowbell. Martyn Kaine’s groove on ‘My Oh My’ kicked off a typically joyful show with an cappella twist. The Soul Family combine passion, party spirit and precision, making Williams’ hooky tunes feel like old favourites. Standouts included a stripped-back ‘Psychedelic Love’ (the Swingle Singers at the bar ensuring high-calibre audience participation) and ‘The Nanny’, relating a Jude Law-style predicament over flamenco-tinted chords. The shenanigans of the three backing vocalists were a treat to watch, and they excelled in their solo spots: Brendan Reilly with an original, Little Black Raincloud, and Sharlene Hector with a Chaka Khan cover.
The evening’s special guests were renowned vocal 8-piece The Swingle Singers, fresh from a residency at nearby Pizza Express. Much has changed since the group began swinging Bach fugues almost 50 years ago: the current line-up is young, dressed-down and extremely talented, with a modern a cappella sound built on Kevin Fox’s beatbox and Tobias Hug’s bass. Their crowd-pleasing mini-set took in Chick Corea’s ‘Spain’, Fox’s stirring arrangement of ‘Eleanor Rigby’, and Quincy Jones’s ‘Soul Bossa Nova’ with Austin Powers choreography. There was also a glimpse of their embryonic Romeo and Juliet project in Richard Niles’s fiendish, discofied arrangement of ‘Tonight’ from West Side Story.
Backing singer Vula, overawed by the Swingles’ performance, had to steel her nerves for what turned out to be a sensational rendition of Anita Baker’s ‘You Can Reach Me’. Vula herself proved a harder act to follow: Anna Stubbs of Brotherly couldn’t hope to match her firepower. Williams’ version of Donny Hathaway’s ‘Someday We’ll All Be Free’, the last song she played with Chris Dagley before his shocking death, brought lumps to many throats – before forthcoming single ‘Not Another Maybe’, with Kaine’s pounding beat and the punchy hits of the Atlantic Horns, ended the night as fierily as it began. If a Soul Family show is like a box of chocolates (you never know what you’re going to get) last night’s was a luxury selection. And like those chocolates, this music goes straight to the hips, so it’s a shame the club’s layout confines most boogying to a sitting position. Ronnie’s recently experimented with moving furniture for Neil Cowley’s shows in the round… maybe it’s time for a Soul Family dancefloor.
– Edward Randell
After the pyrotechnics of the Laurence Cottle Big Band on Friday, Saturday night felt like a lower-key affair, but no less funky in its hip, good-humoured economy. Jason Rebello was a bright star of Brit Jazz in the 1980s and 1990s although in recent years he has spent much of his time as a sideman for Sting and Jeff Beck. Last night with his all-star quartet he seemed to revel in the fact that, in his words, “it’s our band, we can play what we want”.
Focusing on the fusion style with which he made his name, Rebello conjured thick textures from behind banks of keyboards (along with the occasional trip over to the piano). Opener ‘The Wrong Question’ had a Herbie-circa-Headhunters sound, Rebello nibbling at his Clavinet over Jeremy Stacey’s fussy groove; this was followed by ‘Elegant People’, Wayne Shorter’s composition from Weather Report’s Black Market album, on which Paul Stacey coaxed an uncannily sax-like sound from his guitar pedals. Hancock and Shorter are both clear influences on Rebello’s approach: the latter even produced his 1990 debut album A Clearer View.
Within the fusion framework, however, there was plenty of room for stylistic variation. Pino Palladino’s ‘Zuma’ featured a Cuban-flavoured solo from Rebello over an effortless 7/4 groove. Alternating between samba and swing, ‘Justine Time’ was dedicated to Rebello’s wife Justine – the worst pun of the night from the impishly likeable leader. After closing with Herbie Hancock’s ‘Actual Proof’, the band returned for another Palladino tune, ‘What’s Wrong With You?’, Jeremy Stacey’s solo letting rip after a set spent navigating choppy time changes.
Opening act Georgia Mancio started out as a waitress at Ronnie Scott’s, so it’s no surprise that she seemed at home in the club as she led her band through a thoughtful selection of material beginning with a lyricised version of Pat Metheny’s ‘Question The Answer’. ‘Falling In Love With Love’ featured a great piano solo from Tim Lapthorn – all fat, ballsy chords – and a playful arrangement of ‘Just In Time’ showcased Gareth Lockrane’s peerless flute playing, the perfect accompaniment for Mancio’s crystal-clear, cool-swinging vocals. To close the set and lower testosterone levels, Mancio dismissed all but bassist Julie Walkington for a sparse version of Tom Waits’s ‘Take It With Me’.
The sight of a big band taking their seats on the stage while an electric bassist and Fender Rhodes player warm up is an intriguing one to say the least. But bassist Laurence Cottle is experienced enough to know what works – and his Big Band certainly did last night. Featuring regular compadres Nigel Hitchcock on alto saxophone, Graham Harvey on organ, Ian Thomas on drums and Martin Shaw on trumpet among others, the band was super-tight and able to play through the various time signature and tempo changes with breathtaking ease, not least on the interestingly-titled 'I Got Ridov' Em' and 'Gvoove'. The main highlight of the instrumental section however was the Wayne Shorter-penned 'Endangered Species', with the funk of the rhythm section searing alongside the ferocity of the horns.
Singer Claire Martin was the special guest of the Big Band, and she cut a voluptuous figure at the front of the stage singing in her own inimitable style and blitzing her way through a series of classics, from the standards of 'It Could Happen To You' to a ballsy version of Soft Cell's 'Tainted Love', with audience participation which was initially reluctant but soon found their voice.
For regular visitors to the Brit Jazz Fest this week, there were a couple of interesting links to previous concerts. Firstly, after their excellent set the day before, Ryan Quigley of Brass Jaw appeared in the trumpet section of the Big Band (and played a fine solo on 'A Check Up From The Neck Up' to boot). And after Emma Smith alongside the Jim Mullen Organ Trio sang it two days earlier, Martin gave a breathless rendition of 'It Could Happen To You' in keeping with the high energy set.
The Big Band followed an eclectic performance from the Jessica Lauren Four, whose acoustic sound explored the possibilities of a piano trio, featuring a cavalcade of non-Western percussion. Highlights of the opening set included the opening tracks from Lauren's 2000 album Film, with 'Alefala' especially displaying a light melodic touch whilst getting into a sweet groove. The versatile percussion heightened the subtlety of playing, with the band's final tune 'The Name Of Fela Will Always Stand For Freedom' leaving the low-octane sensibilities of the earlier material behind to really push on and rock out.
– James Bourne
Django Bates doesn’t tend to do things by half. So when it became clear that he was doing an album reflecting the work of Charlie Parker, he wasn’t just going to get five guys in a room and just bash out some tunes. Instead what we got – and what we were treated to last night at Ronnie’s – was a carefully crafted tribute, based around the comparatively sparse arrangement of a piano trio – Bates alongside Petter Eldh on bass and Peter Bruun on drums. Bates trod a fine line between blocky phrases and more mellifluous excursions but it worked, combined with the warm sound of Eldh’s double bass. From the opening ‘Scrapple From The Apple’, to ‘Hot House’, all the way through to ‘Moose The Mooche’ and the show-stopping ‘Now’s The Time’, each reading mixed Parker’s tunes with Bates’ little additions and nuances.
Bates’ laconic, almost awkward style in front of the microphone belied his sympathetic work on the piano, but the crowd were soon used to his sense of humour following something of a light-hearted set from support group Brass Jaw.
When the seemingly ubiquitous Scottish group bounded on to the stage, there was something noticeably missing – a drummer, or any form of rhythm for that matter. Reeds/brass quartets are a particularly rare species in the jazz world, and the lack of rhythm tends to sink those who give it a go. But Brass Jaw had plenty of rhythm; whether it was the baritone saxophone of Allon Beauvoisin playing a conventional bass line as on the superb cover of The Police’s ‘Walking On The Moon’, the tenor/alto combination of Konrad Wiszniewski and Paul Towndrow or the trumpet of Ryan Quigley, there was usually a safety net which prevented the music from falling apart.
Besides, the band was often so tight you could barely complain. Tunes such as ‘Deal With It’, ‘J.C.’ and the closing ‘Wake Up’ featured intricate arrangements and stellar playing from all. Occasionally they played such note-heavy passages that the message was lost – the old adage about the musician existing to serve the music, not the other way round entered my mind – but for sheer virtuosity, it was still an impressive spectacle.
It wasn’t quite a “charge your glasses” moment, but it could well have been as the Brit Jazz Fest celebrated the work of Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley, with music provided by Empirical and a spoken tribute from Kevin Le Gendre. But, as Le Gendre pointed out, simply remembering him as a saxophonist – indeed, even as a musician – would have been doing him a disservice. Le Gendre spoke eloquently about Adderley’s influence in the field of civil rights alongside the likes of Jesse Jackson, with the 1970 live album Country Preacher “Live” At Operation Breadbasket cited as a pivotal moment. His death at 46 in 1975 was too soon for all concerned – indeed, Joe Zawinul, who collaborated with Adderley in his final years, was moved enough to compose ‘Cannon Ball’, featured on the 1976 Weather Report album Black Market.
Empirical shuffled their line-up around for this date, to comprise Nathaniel Facey on alto sax, Tom Farmer, double bass and Shaney Forbes, drums, alongside guests George Fogel on piano and Freddie Gavita, trumpet. They played an eclectic set, including Facey’s intriguing arrangement of the immortal ‘Jive Samba’, as well as ‘Sack o’ Woe’ and the closer ‘Exodus’, featuring a superb drum solo from Forbes that nearly took the roof off. The major highlight though was an original piece from pianist Fogel, which took excerpts from Cannonball’s speeches and used the rhythm of it as a starting point, which was both innovative and catchy.
Before Empirical took to the stage, there was a solid set from Jim Mullen’s Organ Trio comprising Mullen on guitar, Mike Gorman, organ and Tristan Maillot, drums. They played three numbers before introducing guest vocalist Emma Smith whose sultry tear-jerking style shone through the dimly lit room. Highlights of the set were Cole Porter’s ‘Love for Sale’ and the sprightly ‘No Moon At All’, as well as accomplished renditions of classic standards ‘My Foolish Heart’ and ‘It Could Happen To You’.
Jasper Høiby’s presence on the stage alone is sparkling enough, but turning up in an all-white suit is always going to get you noticed. “I came dressed as Jesus tonight,” Høiby joked, adding that pianist Ivo Neame looked like a captain in his bright red jacket. Perhaps they were going to a fancy dress party afterwards.
Or, more likely, their unconventional fashion sense just heightened the visual excitement of watching Phronesis in action. Playing the Brit Jazz Fest to launch their album Alive, Phronesis have done plenty to suggest that 2010 might be their year. Centred around Høiby’s hypnotic grooves and the incredible depth of sound he can wrench from his bass, the band played all bar one track of their recently released album, with ‘4 Now’ – taken from 2007’s Organic Warfare but not on Alive – serving as the closer.
The standout of the set, as indeed the standout on the live album, was ‘Abraham’s New Gift’. As with a few Phronesis compositions, it starts swiftly before entering into a cyclical pattern with the listener wondering how they get out, if they do at all. Well ‘Abraham’s New Gift’ does that and then some, with Anton Eger’s angular drumming really paying off in the closing breaks. Another hallmark of Phronesis is their ability to down tools and turn on a sixpence. ‘Love Song’ and the aforementioned ‘Abraham’s New Gift’ and ‘4 Now’ were the best evidence of this. Might this punctuated style put the casual listener off? Well, the audience were left suitably impressed by it.
Still, onto the next question; what do you get when you cross a groove bass, two alto saxes, a dirty Fender Rhodes and a drummer going hell for leather? You get Led Bib, led by drummer Mark Holub, who had a tough act to follow but just about pulled it off. The band, comprising Chris Williams and Pete Grogan on sax, Toby McLaren on keyboards and Liran Donin on bass, played nearly all-new material from an album to be released next year with many tracks displaying a ‘work-in-progress’ feel, but there were some real high points, such as the sax duel between Williams and Grogan on opener ‘Little X’, as well as the hard hitting ‘Walnuts’.
Last night at Ronnie’s saw an intriguing double bill at the Brit Jazz Fest from two acts who like to let their compositions breathe. Pianist John Taylor and saxophonist Julian Argüelles played as a duo for the first time; before the Neon Quartet, led by Stan Sulzmann and featuring an all-star cast, took to the stage.
Taylor and Argüelles – two giants of UK jazz, it has to be said – played first in a low-key set that demanded, and thankfully got, the full attention of the audience. BBC Radio 3’s Jazz on 3 programme were also on hand to record the show for broadcast soon.
The magic in this performance lay in Taylor’s neat flourishes combined with Argüelles’ soft, unhurried playing – whether on tenor or soprano – which allowed them to be heard. Their set ranged from the new to the old, with a gem at the end. The pair are to release a new record at the end of the year, entitled Requiem For A Dreamer recalling Kurt Vonnegut, and the opening two cuts were taken from it; ‘So It Goes’, with a bittersweet melody, and ‘Unstuck in Time’. On the basis of those two songs, then the album should be well worth a listen when it comes out.
The other major highlight of the first set was the closer, ‘Phaedrus’, the title track of the Julian Argüelles Quartet debut album that featured Taylor and Argüelles’ only recorded collaboration to date.
If that weren’t enough, Stan Sulzmann came on alongside his Neon Quartet, with Sulzmann revelling in the chance to play with some “young blood”. The line-up was first class – Kit Downes on piano, Jim Hart on vibes and Tim Giles on drums. This quartet is a true collective, with three of the four band members’ compositions being aired, including a new one from Downes with the imaginative working title of ‘D Minor’, and other works from Sulzmann and Hart. The standout compositions were Hart’s ‘Passwords’, aptly named because of its interlocking melody, and Sulzmann’s ‘Skookum’, with its straightahead beat and pounding piano.
At the Brit Jazz Fest it’s only fair that there ought to be quite a cosmopolitan line-up, and big band lovers had their boxes well and truly ticked last night with the Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Orchestra, all 18 of them, celebrating all things British.
Well, not quite all things British, although conductor Pete Long was at pains to point out that George Gershwin and Charlie Parker were from Staines and Nantwich respectively (bet you didn’t know that, did you?). Nevertheless, the audience seemed not to care as Gershwin’s ‘A Foggy Day’ (which name-checks London, admittedly) and Bird’s ‘Billie’s Bounce’ were played to rapturous effect – ‘Billie’s Bounce’ serving as the second encore.
As well as the usual suspects of Ted Heath and Stan Tracey, there was more contemporary material, including three Beatles numbers – ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’, sung by Georgina Jackson, and two from Ian Mackenzie, in ‘Lady Madonna’ and ‘I Saw Her Standing There’. ‘Lady Madonna’ was the pick of the three, featuring an interesting arrangement whereby the band started off with the verse melody and not highlighting surely the best part of the song – that classic ‘Bad Penny Blues’-inspired piano riff.
Jackson’s soulful yet tender vocal was also featured on Ray Noble’s ‘The Very Thought Of You’ – one of my very favourite numbers – and ‘A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square’, featuring one of the shortest ever light shows in the mid-section, to the amusement of the trumpet section at the back – presumably somebody pressed the wrong button.
The emotional highpoint of the show was reached at the end of the first set, with Tubby Hayes’ ‘Dear Johnny B’, originally a tribute to his recently departed drummer, Johnny Butts. With the obvious parallels to Chris Dagley, clearly the performance that followed was always going to be fierce and emotional, including a killer section featuring only drums and tenor saxophone.
Conductor Long, who was on good form all night, kept things grounded throughout – “you’ll probably recognise this one, let’s just hope that the band do as well” – and even had a blow himself on the Mike Mower sax romp ‘The Yuppieville Rodeo’ to open set two. All in all, an enjoyable night celebrating everything big band and British, proving there was still life in the old dog yet.
Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express led home the opening evening of the Ronnie Scott’s Brit Jazz Fest, supported by Jazzwise, ably supported by the Yazz Ahmed Quintet. It was very much a family affair for Auger, with his daughter Savannah on vocals and son Karma on drums, alongside bassist Nick Sample. This was perhaps fitting, as the club – the community – at Ronnie’s are still coping with the untimely loss of drummer Chris Dagley last week.
Auger’s set was superb throughout, with the main highlight being Indian Rope Man – taken from 1969’s Streetwise, featuring his hardest solo of the night and almost as loud as his choice of shirt – as well as the lovely Wes Montgomery-penned ‘Bumpin’ on Sunset’ with a vocal from Savannah paying homage to the man, and another classic in the bristling mid-tempo of ‘Season Of The Witch’.
His revamped Oblivion Express followed a controlled performance from the Yazz Ahmed Quintet which the audience more than warmed to after the first couple of cuts. The trumpeter appeared confident in her players as she visually gave directions on each piece, and so she should have been with her backup: Shabaka Hutching on reeds, Nadia Sherrif on organ, Dudley Phillips on bass and Jim Hart on drums. The standout soloist was Hutching – equally at home on both tenor sax and bass clarinet – who often bided his time, but was more than capable of tearing up the sky when he saw fit.
The night saw a touch of humour when, at the end of the charming Sherrif-penned ‘Alfred’, the ceiling sprang a leak. Mischievously, Sherrif started picking out the melody of ‘Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head’ as a rather comical scene ensued, with Ronnie’s staff members seen rushing on with a small green bucket only to be replaced soon after by a larger receptacle. Thankfully, the problem was rectified before we reached Tupperware levels, but for a brief moment it became a realistic possibility that Brian Auger would have to play his set with a plastic bucket atop his kit.
Jocularity aside however, everyone pulled through admirably. If anything was to be taken from the opening night, it was not that it rains in London; moreover, Yazz Ahmed’s calm, understated style has a lot going for it, and, even 35 years on, the sound of Hammond organ and crash cymbal in harmony is still a life-affirming experience.