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Matana Roberts, Ian William Craig. Cube, May 11

May 13, 2017

The Cube is almost dark when the music starts. Ian William Craig is illuminated by the bulbs hooked up to a collection of, what, cassette players? Hard to tell in the gloom. Definitely some old school tech, anyway.

It doesn’t matter. His set is all about the sound. A trained voice (later, I learn he is classically schooled) sets up a line at the mike, and is then looped to form a backdrop to the next live fragment. It’s a simple but effective layering technique, augmented by prepared sounds from the battery of cassette decks.

What does this build? There’s an ethereal, almost devotional feel to the soundscape. The tonality is conventional, but the fairly simple melodies are cliche free, slightly poignant in the main. He mixes upper and lower registers to good effect to deepen the effect. There are some words, but most aren’t completely audible (“we are discovered”, repeated, an exception – but don’t know who or what or how it fits with anything else…). It doesn’t matter. The overall effect is absorbing, as if the Cube has been temporarily consecrated to some as yet undefined religion. The singing is Cantorial at time, and takes on a yearning quality, a near lament, for long stretches, then gradually ebbs away before the next piece starts. There isn’t a lot of variation in this brief set, and some faintly tedious organoid synth noises intrude here and there, but there’s a focussed musical intelligence at work here, and some very effective sonic organisation. The Canadian artist, who I’ve not come across before, seems to operate in a range of modes from singer-songwriter to abstract impressionist. Definitely someone to investigate further.

And you can see why a double bill with Matana Roberts – whose welcome visit to Bristol is probably the reason the house is full – makes sense. She’s another artist who builds soundscapes in a very distinctive way. There’s more improvisation in her work, and – in the unfolding episodes of Coin Coin, her epic confrontation with the history of slavery – stronger programmatic elements. We have three instalments so far, out of a projected dozen and it’s a version of Coin Coin Chapter 3, River Run Thee we hear tonight. That calls for a similar set up to Craig’s – the performer centre stage behind an array of devices, with a mike for real-time elements. It’s still dark, but there are now looped back projections of still photos.

There’s no real introduction or explanation, so if you don’t know what’s going on I’m not sure what would come across. The recording of Chapter 3 (still available to listen to here, while part 2 is here) is a richly textured assembly of field recordings, spoken fragments, incantatory vocal lines and often heavily treated saxophone. It’s been called a collage: that doesn’t really do it justice but it’s a start. It’s easier to experience than describe – though I tried to review it here.

Tonight’s performance is the same, but different. It doesn’t recreate the recording (why bother) but reassembles the materials in a different pattern, like viewing a landscape from a new angle or in different weather. It opens, after the briefest of allusions to current events in the US (ruefully: “it’s not my fault”) with clear statements on (unprocessed) alto saxophone. It’s a reminder that Roberts could readily have established herself as an outstanding conventional jazzer, and still could any time.

But she has other plans. Barely heard voices come and go from the mix – less distinctly than on the CD. A whole range of effects are stirred in as well, there are song fragments from the decks and sung live, and and her own voice intones the stark lines that punctuate the whole work – sometimes declarative, sometimes posing unanswerable questions: words of sadness, loss and pain, as well as resilience.

The piece comes together through accretion, rather than any straightforward sequencing. It’s a powerful method. The same illusionistic brilliance is in evidence as  features on the recording, an elusive alchemy that transforms sounds that could sit uneasily together into a blend that coheres. An hour passes quickly, building an experience that is involving, moving, and rather beautiful.

There’s just time for a quick back and forth with the audience – mothers are on her mind – and a bonus unaccompanied saxophone solo before she finishes. Like the whole work, it is heartfelt, piercing, and leaves a feeling that much has been said, but there’s still more to say.

(Roberts’ tour continues, including Jazz Cafe in London next week.)

(photo: in Aarhus, 2015. Hreinn Gudlaugsson via Wikipedia)

Bristol this week

May 9, 2017

Behold the regular link to Tony Benjamin’s weekly preview on Bristol 247.

I’ve already mentioned the John O’Gallagher visit to the Fringe on Wednesday. There are a couple of other things to add. There’s a rare performance of Alan Ginsberg’s Howl at the Greenbank in Easton on Thursday, voiced by Nick Moore, and with free accompaniment from Hugh Kirkbride double bass, Roger Skerman drums, & Dave Mordecai tenor sax. The same gig also sees music from Vulpine 2Paul Shearsmith trumpet, Keisuke Matsui guitar, Roger Skerman drums, described as “Improvisational experimentalism all the way from London town”.

Finally, note another experimental outing, in a slightly different sense, on Saturday for trumpeter about town Dave Mowat, for which I also quote from the blurb for accuracy.

Chai For All weaves together klezmer and Arabic music, infused with jazz, Yiddish song and storytelling. Here it previews material from the forthcoming show ‘Longing Belonging & Balfour’, the first full performance of which takes place on Thursday 13 July at Henleaze United Reformed Church (URC) Bristol.

On Saturday 13 May 6.15pm, at Colston Hall: Foyer, Bristol, Chai For All presents a Work In Progress (WIP) performance, with an after-show discussion and feedback session. With Knud Stuwe, oud; Mark Smulian, bass; Simon Leach, guitar, oud, percussion; Katie Stevens, clarinet; Marianna Moralis, vocals; and David Mowat, narration and trumpet. Free entry. Child friendly. Feedback to the show is greatly appreciated.

‘Longing, Belonging & Balfour’ WIP focuses on the Zionist and Jewish perspectives of the period before the Balfour Declaration of 1917 when a ‘Jewish Homeland’ in Palestine became a real proposition under the protection of the British Empire. The Palestinian persectives on the Declaration are currently under development, to premiere at the full show.

Thursday at the Cube – Matana Roberts

May 7, 2017

Was going to do a little preview of this intriguing prospect – but I see the gig is now sold out so will try and write about it after. Meantime, here’s a link to my review of her last recording, just for interest. I found it a compelling and moving work, hard to characterise but in a good way. Great she’s coming to town. As I’m still slightly high from hearing Kyung Wha Chung play the complete Bach solo violin sequence at St George’s last night you could say this is a week of contrasts! I feel my life is one of more or less unbroken cultural privilege at the moment – and I’m loving it.


Fabulous Fringe

May 7, 2017

An enjoyable, mostly off the cuff, evening last Wednesday at the Fringe in Clifton, when Guess the Bleating – a bunch of old Bristol acquaintances with a shared jazz history – had one of their rare get togethers. That history turned out to be one part “my heart belongs to Blue Note”, one part Ornette Coleman. We had tunes by Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard – Jake McMurchie on sax turning in an especially gripping solo on Red Clay – and several more by pianist John Baggott, who writes originals that sound as if they come from some lost Blue Note album. And Ornette’s greatest hits: Turnaround; Ramblin’; Lonely Woman.

Ramblin’ probably came off best of the three – all you need do with Lonely Woman is play the theme, really, and that’s pretty much what they did, in a segue from the bluesier title. The very first recording of Ramblin, unusually for OC, had a piano (Paul Bley), so it sounds more authentic from a quintet somehow – though it’s a tune you can do lots of things with: check out Mike Gibbs’ arrangement on recent CDs with his own small band and the NDR big band. This time we had Tony Orrell digging in on drums and a fine solo from Jim Barr on string bass. Add Pete Judge on trumpet, and you have an unbeatable line-up for a casual jazz club date.

Unbeatable line-ups are something Fringe promoter Jon Taylor brings off increasingly often, and it’s worth noting that his four May gigs are a sequence he’ll find hard to better. This all-star Bristol line-up are followed next week by a return visit for the brilliant alto sax player John O’Gallagher, with Percy Pursglove also coming down again from Birmingham to join him, Tony Orrell and Dan Moore. Their last date at the same venue prompted this post about the pleasures of music in small rooms.

Then get ready for some high-energy music from Partisans, Julian Siegel and Phil Robson’s long-running quartet. This is a rare sighting now guitarist Robson is mainly based in the US, and a real coup to book them into such an intimate venue. Should be an intense evening.

This remarkable four-week run of brilliance then concludes with a new trio, led by bassist Mark Lewandowski, and featuring Liam Noble on keys and Paul Clarvis on drums and percussion. Clarvis and Noble work together superbly – in duo and in the raucously enjoyable Pigfoot. This trio are airing a different project, a CD devoted to Fats Waller tunes. I picked up a copy in Cheltenham the other week and am enjoying it enormously. So is John Fordham.

You can savour a great video of Noble and Clarvis here, if you’ve 20 mins to spare.


Now imagine that with an excellent bass player added, and you’ll be in the right neighbourhood. Definitely looking forward to hearing the trio live.

I won’t make all these dates, but I wish I could. The Fringe is contributing mightily to the range of music we can hear in what really isn’t a large city. Jon moved to a larger room for a bit, but didn’t get quite enough support to keep it on. Let’s make sure we keep filling the current venue, so we can enjoy months like this.

Jazz – back in Bristol

May 2, 2017

There’s a lot happening in Bristol this week, for those not jazzed out by the Cheltenham festival. Tony Benjamin has the full list here. As he says it’s a pretty brassy few days in prospect – even brassier in fact, when you add the Hot 8 Brass Band, hotfoot from Cheltenham, at the Fleece on Wednesday.

He’s somehow found time to review much of what went on at Cheltenham as well. My own thoughts about the ten or so sets I managed to fit in over four days are here and here, with nice pics from John Watson. Tony and I seem to have a few differences of opinion there, though we definitely agree about the astounding Marius Neset.


Cheltenham time

April 26, 2017

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…




A European excursion

April 23, 2017

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: