Here’s the regular gig listing on Bristol247. There’s plenty going on in Bristol this week, but as Tony Benjamin says the real action is up the M5 in Cheltenham (also an easy train ride if you, like me, live carless). He’s done a separate, comprehensive Cheltenham preview, too, which is here – Bristol247’s jazz coverage really is good when they give TB the space to do it.
I’ve not much to add, except to say that Cheltenham now seems solidly established as the biggest and best UK jazz festival outside London – even with the welcome advent of Love Supreme. This year sees an expansion of the “fringe” programme around town, which ought to make the place feel more generally festive and allow some musical moments for those who can’t get in to the ticketed gigs (plenty of which are already sold out).
I’m experimenting this year with going each day straight from Thursday (for Dee Dee Bridgewater) through to Monday’s now compulsory gala performance from Gregory Porter.
Also hoping to hear Marius Neset, Seb Rochford, Phronesis, Chick Corea, Chris Potter, and Hans Koller’s group with the excellent alto player John O’Gallagher (just about the only one that Tony doesn’t mention). I’ll be reviewing as much as I can fit in before jazz exhaustion sets in for LondonJazzNews and will link here when the review(s) are up. Should be a great long weekend, especially if it gets a little warmer…
This blog’s tireless quest to bring you news of music from all corners of – well Bristol, mainly, but one or two other places – never stops. So a few words about impressions of Vienna and Budapest last week (so I can find these musicians again, and by way of atonement for lack of gig listing while away).
A nice thing about old European cities is that jazz has been around long enough to get integrated into the local scene. UK musicians come and go here, as one ingredient in a multinational mix. Thus, we could have heard Vocal Summit in Vienna, at the posh Porgy and Bess, a unit first formed back in the the 1980s (I think) and still featuring Norma Winstone and Ursula Dudziak. We passed on that one, diverted by serious dining, but the following day (Easter Monday) was musically spectacular. Morning sounds came courtesy of the stupendous organ in St Stephens cathedral, underpinning an Easter service full of marvellous music from a baroque ensemble, choir and soloists: a startling hour, even for the irreligious.
Then an evening visit to Jazzland, Vienna’s “other” club. Underneath yet another church – why are so many jazz clubs in cellars? – it’s been going for 45 years, and a healthy audience turned out on a rainy night to hear a multinational quartet. It was the first night of a tour for drummer Vladimir Kostadinovic (born in Belgrade, now resident in Vienna), and a group featuring fellow Serbian Milan Nikolic on bass, Norwegian Bjorn Solli on guitar and Seamus Blake (who plays on the drummer’s latest CD) on tenor sax.
The leader offers splendidly precise percussion, and a slew of knotty compositions – sounding a bit like this (here at Porgy and Bess with piano instead of guitar, but otherwise pretty similar).
The guitarist leant toward Metheny much of the time, though a little more left-field than Pat’s mainstream work, bass was highest quality throughout, and Blake fitted in as if the whole thing was a long-standing New York grouping rather than an occasional European assembly. The best bits were Monkish, on a Kostadinovic tune (I assume) that was almost Monk pastiche, and one by the man himself, Well, You Needn’t which played us back out into the rain after an excellent, atmospheric evening.
Nothing too distinctive about that: more a case study in how musicians from all over are now fluent in the international language of modern jazz. Things were a bit different in Budapest. We might have caught the excellent Viktor Toth at the Opus Jazz club in Budapest’s Music Centre – a Hungarian Ornette Coleman disciple whose trio features a cimbalom where a piano might normally be. They sound like this (full length video).
Regret missing that, too footsore from viewing the city to concentrate on new music, but now I know his work I’ll be exploring further.
Opus tempted the next, and final, evening too, when Shabaka Hutchings was billed to play with an interesting crowd of Hungarian musicians. However, we opted for a special performance by the remarkable Balázs Dongó Szokolay, collaborating with the similarly named Balázs Szokolay. This wasn’t jazz, but a fresh take on classical/folk interchanges, beginning with Bartok and Kodaly, then offering a suite of new arrangements of Hungarian folk songs.
Dongo (for reference) is a fascinating musician, playing a slew of traditional instruments – multiple recorders, tárogató, and bagpipes – with occasional contributions on soprano sax, which he plays with a lot of bite, and clarinet. The other Szokolay is a superb classical pianist, specialising in Liszt but deeply committed to a long-standing exploration of other territories with Dongo. With support from singers and, in the second half, a dozen string players, they achieved a heartfelt two hours of music that sounded infused with the past, but wonderfully fresh. The two lead names both call for further exploration, but Dongo felt like the real discovery. He doesn’t improvise much, though I’m sure he can. There were Surman-like moments as he ripped through folk-dance melodies on recorders and soprano sax, and Quercus came to mind as he and the pianist blended with the fine singer Andrea Navratil. It more than fulfilled the hopes raised by the concert blurb:
Over the past few decades, an extraordinary form of cooperation emerged between Liszt Prize-winning pianist and world-famous music educator Balázs Szokolay, and Balázs Dongó Szokolay, the Prima Prize-awardee natural and instinctive musician, who rose to appearance on the largest international stages without any formal training in music.
Together, they want to effect an approach to the work of Bartók and Kodály that is as authentic as possible. Their concerts set in strong relief the fact that the line between the genres is not all the sharply drawn.
In the first half of this show, timed for the Spring Festival and the Kodály anniversary, the composers’ works can be heard in a special instrumentation, with the piano accompanied by folk recorders and the tárogató. The second half is the world premiere of Sír az út előttem, Balázs Dongó Szokolay’s song cycle, whose inspiration came from archaic folk music.
“It is regrettable,” wrote Kodály, “that our composers do not make folk song arrangements more often. It would facilitate, more than anything else, the rapprochement of folk and composed music.”
A very nourishing evening, enhanced by the dazzling surroundings of the Urania picture palace, which is the more richly decorated than any cinema you ever saw. Off now to explore these musicians on YouTube… very glad to have made their acquaintance live. Ooh look, here’s some more:
Here’s Bristol247’s weekly guide, a day earlier than usual. Especially excellent things at Future Inns and the BeBop club this week, as Tony Benjamin writes. Elliott Galvin’s trio were great fun last time out. I don’t know Rick Simpson, but his band certainly has a fine personnel.
The venue’s blurb pasted below, for interest.
Almost forgot… but late notice of Tony Benjamin’s Bristol listing for this week – here.
Etta James story at St George’s already gone, but still time to book for Art Themen at the Fringe tonight if you’re quick (I think). Been listening to him since the late 1970s, and his mature style is still ripening. Last siting was a session in Brecon Cathedral at one of the last (it seems) full-scale Brecon festivals, and he was on sparkling form, as ever. It’ll be great to hear him again with what looks like a superb rhythm section.
Late this week, due to jazz festival distractions. Now that’s all over, normal weekly gigs resume, as Tony Benjamin rounds up here. Last weekend was pretty full of music, but I think I might be ready for some more by the time Sam Crockatt gets going at the BeBop club on Friday…
Meantime, various reviews of the jazz festival:
Macy Grey on Sunday night (I left well before the last bit due to festival overload).
Andy Sheppard plays Metropolis on Thursday night (mine).
What I heard Fri-Sun – on LondonJazz, with great photos from John Watson.
Tony’s selection from the same days.
Altogether a great weekend, and the Festival seems in very good shape after five years. It’ll be great if they can continue their booking of a few slightly more adventurous contemporary line-ups in the Lantern. Radio 3 recorded a couple this year (Yazz Ahmad and Jasper Hoiby’s band, I think, so look out for them on Jazz Now on 17th and 24th April respectively) so that extra bit of attention should help. As you can read, the latter was my gig of the weekend. A set where my attention never wavered because it was so consistently good, which was quite something by Sunday evening.
Had a nice evening last week meeting other contributors to LondonJazzNews. So (navel-gazing alert) here’s a post about writing – but also about music.
There are plenty of interestingly difficult things about criticism, and music criticism in particular. Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. (Don’t know who first said that but I like to think it was Frank Zappa who spread it about). And every time I review a CD I’m asking whether I can say anything that goes beyond, “if you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you’ll like” or “this thing is quite good of its kind”. (Usually I can’t, really).
A slightly different question comes up, though. It turned out some of the people I was chatting to puzzled over it as well: how does writing about a gig differ from reviewing a recording? I’m sure it does, but it’s not easy to say exactly why. Both need that effort to find words for something not expressed in that mode. Both call for some way of sharing an experience of listening. Usually writers describe sounds as like those made by someone else, or by some other sound generator. We claim they evoke some mood or emotion, or we strive for some adjectival inspiration that seems to fit.
The contextual information – personal, technical, historical, genre-related – can cover much the same range for live and recorded music, too. One old live bugbear, sound balance, is less of an issue at most gigs than it used to be (cloth-eared mixers who only understand rock-music are rarer; the quality of venues’ kit generally better; the main outstanding issue is drummers who can’t adjust to small spaces).
But still, writing something that might illuminate a recording feels different from recounting a gig. It could be because the CD reviewer’s imagined reader is someone who may now buy it. That invites suggestions of what to listen for, accentuating the positive. The live show is gone, in the air, but also shared (often with just a few people if it’s a jazz gig, but more likely then that you talk to them about it, perhaps). You can just try and describe an immediate response – and maybe indicate if it seemed to be a communal one.
My comments as reviewer on CDs are probably more positive, overall. That’s not because I prefer them. But if I can’t find anything good to say about a recording, I’ll probably just keep quiet because, really, why would anyone care? If an artist I value puts out something that doesn’t quite seem to work, I’ll say so. I’ll comment on lyrics sometimes – ‘cos I do words. Otherwise, musicians should do whatever they feel like, and seek listeners if they want them. If I like the result, I’ll try and help that along. If not, I’ll just take it that it’s not my business. I’m more likely to say if a gig didn’t do it for me, and try and explain why, but will make sure to mention if others obviously enjoy it. I’d hate to put anyone off if the gig is part of a tour that continues – which does sometimes make live reviewing seem more pointful. Otherwise, I treat live reviews mainly as a way of setting down something about a moment I might enjoy remembering myself one day.
The other difference, which matters only to the writer, is that reviewing a CD takes more work. I heard a superb live session from saxophonist Tim Armacost’s trio the other week, and could happily have come back and written a review about how how the evening went. In the event, I ended up reviewing the CD that features the pieces played that night instead – and yes, that took longer.
Why? Well, a new CD has gone through a process where the artist and/or producer have laboured to show the work at its absolute best, so they deserve the best attention I can give. That demands more than one play. Then, how to tell when to stop? There’s always a temptation to have one more go – to fill out the notes, to delay starting to write, or to check what you’ve already said. Sometimes, that’s because the thing is so good I want to enjoy it again, knowing it’ll get less play once the review is done. But the main motive is to convince myself I’ve done justice to the music in all its detail.
Live, that’s not possible, so all words can do is convey a selection of immediate impressions. I hardly ever check a live review against a later broadcast, though the chance comes round quite often. This is a music of immediacy, that either works in the moment, or not at all. There might be different moments on a second listening, but (assuming you already have a jazz-trained ear at all) if a show doesn’t grab you in some way first time, there’s probably something lacking. But then that’s true of a recording, too.
Reviewing it, like playing jazz I guess, is stuck with a modern curiosity*. It is a time-based art that succeeds best by being different each time, but recording allows us to have (part of) the experience over and over. The real puzzle is then why, while I am always drawn to music with an element of improvisation, I enjoy hearing some improvised moments repeated until the record wears out.
It works for musicians, too. And not just so they can justify that moment near the end of every gig when they tell you that if you like what you hear you can take home a CD. There’s a nice piece in the latest Jazzwise where Arun Ghosh, explaining why Miles’ In A Silent Way was important to him, marvels how Tony Williams’ much delayed drum explosion, after nearly two vinyl sides of simply keeping time, does it for him every time. “The hit that gives me whenever I listen to it is pure joy”. Everyone who loves jazz, or just music, collects moments like that, and revisits them when they can. That ain’t “the sound of surprise”. You know exactly, second by second, what’s going to happen. But is the pleasure the same, or different? I’ve been wondering about that for a lot longer than I’ve been reviewing. I don’t have an answer, but still enjoy confronting the question. Excuse me while I revisit Ornette in 1961, or Rollins in 1986, or …
*I first wrote paradox, but last time I said that word in public a mathematician very nicely pointed out that I was wrong, in a logical/technical sense, so he’s scared me off using it.