Peak music – Bristol-London-Bristol

Pretty hard to choose what to hear the past week or so, with an unusual range of gigs in Bristol and the London Jazz Festival in full spate down the M4 – a few quick notes on what I managed to fit in.

A rare week began last Thursday with Alex Garnett’s Bunch of Fives down at St George’s. Not a huge audience for the venue – there were three other pretty good jazz shows on offer the same night – but enough to show appreciation for a fine display of two-tenors jazz. The band, with Tim Armacost joining Garnett on sax, work from old models but when they are re-worked as well as this that doesn’t matter. Hard to imagine two more compatible players, their individual saxophone sounds are pretty similar which reduces the scope for contrast, but they play beautifully together. This is co-operative, not competitive tenor playing, not really in the “tenor battle” vein, and all the better for it. They support and encourage each other, and each shows visible appreciation of the other’s invention. And the evening is lifted to an extremely high level by the other three in the band – Liam Noble on piano, Mike Janisch on bass and the ever more marvellous James Maddren on drums. Hearing him play unamplified in St George’s, a challenge some drummers fail dismally, reinforces what a brilliantly skilled and sensitive percussionist he is. It can be hard to adjust to purely acoustic presentation these days, even for the listener, but nice for once to hear a gig where the only adjustment which needed to be made to the sound was to raise the piano lid higher in the second set so we could get the full benefit of Noble’s playing.

Then a slightly more raucous hour in the Crypt with the always beguiling Dakhla. Don’t think they’ve been out live that much lately and they seemed to be enjoying themselves as much as we were. There’s a new album in the works which is something to look forward to in 2014. I’m always torn between hoping they get more national attention and being happy that they most often play in and around Bristol so I can go and hear them. The new arrangement in the Crypt at St George’s – a small change which has the band on a small stage in the rear rather than stuck at one end of the other arched room – makes a big difference. It feels like a proper gig space now, and these after hours sessions are highly recommended. Also nice to see the band from the earlier show hanging out and voicing their appreciation of Dakhla’s set, with Tim Armacost sounding especially taken with them.

Then a couple of days in London, the idea being to hear shows which are unllkely to be easy to catch again. One was a 50th anniversary recreation of Charles’ Mingus Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, with a lovely double bass feature beforehand for Gary Crosby, Dave Green and Peter Ind, the other a CD launch gig for Troykestra. I’ve reviewed both of these shows in the Purcell room for LondonJazzNews, here and here.

There’s always other stuff to take in when the festival is on, so Black Saint was preceded by a show in the QEH Front Room by Tomorrow’s Warriors, who were impressive as well as impressively young. And there was a leap to the other end of the age range after Troykestra, when a brisk walk over to the Festival Hall found Kenny Wheeler’s Quintet just starting a set in the Clore Ballroom.

This had been set up jazz in the round style, with the band right in the middle of the space, another small change which worked brilliantly. And the music was a complete treat. This was, I confess, a slight relief as we had mixed memories of a Wheeler gig a few years back now at the Barbican where his trumpet sound seemed to have deserted him. So sad when it is a sound you have known and loved for so long. It must be the hardest instrument to carry on with into old age, and KW is now 83…

This time, though, although he played seated throughout, he seemed to have adjusted to the limitations. OK the old facility isn’t quite there, and he sticks to the middle range, but the sound and line are still absolutely recognisable. So is the beautiful musical intelligence, as evidenced by a whole bunch of new compositions which also sound, well, like Kenny Wheeler. Hard to find words to describe why that is, but they just do. And that’s a fine thing.

Aside from KW this was a tremendous band, with Chris Laurence on bass, Stan Sulzmann on tenor, Jim Hart substituting adroitly for Martin France on drums, and John Taylor on Piano –  creme de la creme, really. They all played Wheeler’s tunes with relish, perhaps most of all on an older, quite funky piece whose title I didn’t catch. I’ve heard him play dozens of times since falling in love with Gnu High nearly 40 years ago, most memorably with Dave Holland’s first Quintet alongside a young Steve Coleman, but this was a nice memory to lay down on top of all the others. *

That was it for London, enticing though the rest of the festival was (read many more reviews on the LondonJazz site, or try Bath jazz blogger Mike Collins, who heard lots too).

Was having a pause after all that but a late call for a minor bit of surgery on Wednesday (that’s me with the stitches in my face) meant I was going to miss Arve Henriksen at St George’s so got on the bike and went down to catch Ballaké Sissoko at Colston the night before instead. And very glad I did. The music tends to be harmonically simpler than jazz but Sassoko’s four piece (six and twelve string guitars and ballophon) sounded fantastic and their single 95 minute set – with additional colour from singer Babani Kone – was a thing of beauty. I sometimes think going to so many gigs in a short space is greedy, but when there is such quality and diversity on offer it’s rude not to, really…

*oddly, this set came across less happily on the radio a few weeks later. The recording captured every slight fluff, note reached for and not quite made, and minute mis-timing in pitiless detail. I fear it didn’t really sound like the Kenny Wheeler of old on the broadcast, except compositionally. Better, perhaps, to remember him like this, playing one of the same tunes a couple of decades earlier.

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