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Sona Jobarteh – St George’s June 7

June 8, 2018

Sona Jobarteh is a wonderfully charismatic performer – on kora, voice and guitar (played, as far as I could tell, in what I shall now think of as kora finger-style: thumb and index finger only). She has a great band, too. Last night’s show at St George’s was a treat, as recorded here by the  perceptive blogger Emma Champion.

But still… What a difference a drummer makes. Wesley Joseph on drums was also a superb player. I love some drums – I’ve heard live shows from most of the leading jazz drummers of the last half century, and seek out their recordings.

However, I kind of wished he hadn’t been there last night. Nothing personal. But a full-length set I listened through on YouTube a day before this gig featured just a four piece – same (really excellent) five-string bassist, Andy McLean, a different guitarist, and the brilliant and inventive percussionist Mamadou Sarr. The interaction between Sarr and Jobarteh was a highlight of that set.

More, it seemed a perfectly balanced band. It’s well recorded, and you can hear everything, each of the four enhancing the others. With the addition of a trap set, the sound in St George’s was much more problematic. There was more amplification, which obscures the natural beauty of the sound of the kora. And the addition of snares and cymbals intrudes on the end of the frequency range where much of the kora sound lies. The result was muddy and a little frustrating. A retreat to the back of the hall, and then ascent to the gallery in the interval, improved things somewhat, but there was still a density of percussion that this music didn’t need. The voice mostly still cut through. The kora, and the guitars often didn’t. Seems a shame.

I thought the addition of drums was new, augmenting a previous working band but I now see other, earlier clips on youtube feature (I think) the same drummer, so I guess the first one that caught my fancy was an exception, and drums plus percussion is the usual line-up. Oh well, I hope she comes back … and maybe the budget or scheduling conflicts will take things back to a four-piece again, just to have a chance to enjoy that rather clearer sound live.

See which you prefer:

Without drummer. This one’s been viewed 4 million times (!) so I assumed it was the regular ensemble…


And with drummer, though also with rather clearer sound than we enjoyed last night…

Meantime, this taste of kora provides an incentive to book for a just-announced date in November at the same venue, where Catrin Finch and Sekou Keita’s harp and kora duo will sound fabulous, I’m sure. Missed their recent date in Bath, so this is a welcome chance to hear them: a recordings I have on download is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard.


Solo piano – two ways

June 5, 2018
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It heats no homes, and grows no food, but the concert grand piano is on my list of finest human technological achievements. Almost anything you do with it sounds good. Great music on a great piano is an endless pleasure.

Two samples this week bear comparison. First was Paul Lewis’s recital at St George’s. Lewis is a wonderful performer, but not one who strays far from canonical concert repertoire. It’s the kind of evening to do occasionally – and we’re already booked for his date in a fortnight (the two were close together because of a cancellation and rescheduling). But a late ticket offer and another chance to hear the chap who helped St George’s select their shiny new Steinway were temptation enough to do both.

Friday was the pure  presentation of composed music. Lewis doesn’t speak – just walks on, plays, bows smilingly, and leaves the stage. Interval, and repeat. A little bit of Beethoven; two Haydn sonatas; a hefty dose of Brahms. A rousing ovation. All done by 9.05 pm, precisely as advertised – reinforcing a feeling that our man was intent on catching a train back to London.

All superbly done. Still, since you hear the same notes in the same order every time, why take in a live performance? Look for the Haydn Sonata in E-flat, and the first youtube hit is an excellently shot film of Alfred Brendel playing it as well as can be imagined. I tried to pay attention to what the live rendition yielded that was different.

Not better playing, to be sure. But you get a richer sound and, perhaps, a sense of connection. With the performer, the instrument, and audience. Even though St George’s was only two thirds full – unusual for this performer – sharing music with 400 other people who are concentrating intently does create an atmosphere of close attention that sharpens awareness of sound and silence. The spaces between the notes are louder – especially in St George’s acoustically limpid, deconsecrated space. It’s a pleasing communal rite, too. I’m not a great one for tribal custom: this one I like.

And there is something about this repertoire that makes one appreciate the piano more. These composers were exploring what it could do. This is apparent in the Beethoven bagatelles at the outset – these are essentially offcuts, but they are Beethoven’s offcuts, so each plays delightedly with what for him was a new-fangled instrument. The same is true, to a lesser extent of the Haydn sonatas. They do, all these years on, have the quality that he seems to fill out each phrase with exactly the note you expect, but that’s mainly a measure of how good a job he did, I guess. We now take all his tricks for granted.

And in the Brahms klavierstucke, similarly disconnected but more substantial than Beethoven’s bagatelles, the sound of the piano is grander still. He was born a century after Haydn, 60 years after Beethoven, so enjoyed the fully evolved grand piano, with steel frame and strings and mechanical improvements that brought the sound we now enjoy.

And what a sound. The Steinway on Friday delivered a top register like falling water, and lower notes that rumbled, growled and purred. And at climactic moments, especially the last bars of the Brahms, it roared. I daresay one could build an audio system that reproduced all this, almost, but it would probably cost nearly as much as the actual instrument. Better to remind the ears how it sounds every now and again by visiting a concert hall and hearing someone as good as Lewis play music like this, that uses it to such good effect.

Sunday’s set – 90 mins, no interval (what an excellent phrase that is) – from Tigran wasn’t quite unadorned piano. There was a little electronic decoration deployed, rather effectively, on one piece; some vocal percussion at the mike; one sung melody; and some exceptionally tuneful whistling. But the piano was the main business. The young player is something of a critical darling, as this review from Kings Place last year testifies – he played the Barbican the night before this gig as his only other UK appearance this time round.

I find much of what he does resistible, sadly – my failing, I daresay. There were scattered beauties all the way through, and some entire pieces succeed brilliantly. But the overall conception doesn’t quite keep the attention. I have never seen a solo piano recital from a player whose left hand was used to such static effect throughout. A note or three, often repeated unchangingly from start to finish, supports a continual stream from the active hand, but creates a monotonous effect, rhythmically and – some of the time – harmonically. Some of the tunes are deeply affecting, some aren’t. But all are delivered with a semi-devotional air reminiscent of Abdullah Ibrahim decades ago. It’s beguiling, up to a point, and obviously deeply felt, but if you aren’t quite swept up in the flow it seems to lack something. Hard to define what – I think where it falls down may be that this is music with the quality of improvisation, but without very much actual quality improvisation. The mid-tempo flurries from that busy right hand never falter, but all sound pretty similar over the long haul.

Still, everyone else seemed to find it thoroughly pleasing, and there was a good audience, about thirty years younger on average than Lewis’s crowd. So maybe I’ve just spent too long in the company of Monk and Moran, Stan Tracey and Fred Hersch, and not enough time steeped in Armenian tradition. I felt the force of that in the splendid encore, one of the tunes with gorgeous whistling to delineate the melody. But only intermittently before that.

Never mind. The Steinway sits in St George’s, awaiting its next collaborator (or adversary, as Stan used to say). That encounter will be different again.



Bristol jazz week – 4 June

June 4, 2018

Here’s the rundown compiled by Tony Benjamin for Bristol247

I count 15 gigs listed there, but still a couple of things to add: TB says Thursday looks crowded. Yes, and there’s more. Big Bad Wolf, a London-based quartet, includes guitarist-of-the-moment Rob Luft, along with Owen Dawson (trombone), Micheal de Souza (Fender bass) and Jay Davis (drums). Their album Pond Life came out last year and John Fordham found it “intriguing” – and they appear at the Canteen on the night in question.

And for something a bit different, you can pop down to St Stephens church the night after for energetic trumpeter Dave Mowat’s Chai for All. He describes them as “a jazz-tinged klezmer and Middle-Eastern music ensemble”. Their latest project has recruited artists and story-tellers from Palestine for

“An evocative ‘music and spoken word concert’ of human-earth stories through the eyes of Palestinians living under Occupation. A collaboration between Dar Al Musika (Palestine) and Chai For All (UK) with singer/bağlama player Zaid Hilal (Palestine)..

If you want to learn more about how life is lived there after recent news from Gaza, or are just intrigued by the possibilities of cross-cultural collaboration, then catch this first night of a five-date tour. Can’t find it on St Stephens website, but the details and tickets are here – and start time advertised is 7.30.


PS. Out of Bristol, there’s also the Amser Jazz Time festival at the RWCMD from Thursday, with Trio HLK/Evelyn Glennie, Yazz Ahmed, and Nerija, as well as a packed programme of college ensembles. Details here.

A clutch of 2018 CDs

June 1, 2018
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Vanity reposting interlude: Still reviewing for LondonJazzNews – still about one a month – so here are the half dozen or so I tried to say something sensible about in the first months of 2018.

Andreas Schaerer – A Novel of Anomaly – link


Slightly more relaxed session than usual from the astonishing Swiss voice artist.


Greg Cordez – Last Things Last – link


Beautiful writing and playing from Bath-based bassist, and a stellar NY band.

Michael Wollny Trio Live – Wartburg, Trio – Oslo. – link


Double offering from the mercurial pianist, who ACT continue to document generously. Quite right too.


Mathias Eick – Ravensburg – link 


Another dreamy offering from the trumpeter – the contrasting flavour imparted by a different violinist, compared with his previous, is fascinating.


Bokani Dyer Trio – Neo Native – link


Love South African piano, and this guy is developing an interesting take on several traditions.


Jure Pukl – Doubtless – Link


A formidable two-tenor quartet here.


Bristol jazz this week – 29 May

May 29, 2018
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As anticipated, I failed to benefit from several notable gigs last week. Eyebrow were excellent at St George’s, though. Not so taken with Mammal Hands, unlike the rest of the audience who responded warmly to their simple, riffy pieces. As Tony Benjamin relates, the sound wasn’t great, but there was another problem – I find what they do a little dull, overall. The event rate is low, and it’s a all bit monotonous, and predictable. Lots of folks obviously like their music like this, but if jazz is the sound of surprise, then that’s to be found elsewhere.

Happily, we made it back from a trip up North in time to catch Greg Cordez’s birthday celebration gig at the Fringe on Sunday night, which was an endearingly ramshackle affair, and musically rewarding, as such evenings often are. Especially good to hear Michael Blake, who plays so well on Greg’s last album, on tenor. I hadn’t come across this accomplished US-based player before but his stuff is well worth exploring.

Plenty more on offer this week – as listed here. I’ll be giving Tigran a try next weekend, on the basis of growing reputation and recommendations. Didn’t hear him last time out at St George’s when, they say, he “left the audience almost dizzy with the evidence of his genius”(!). I did find a European Festival show, a few years ago, marred by a lot of bombastic stuff derived from his affection for heavy-metal, which overwhelmed the rest of the set. Hoping for something a bit more reflective this time round.


Eyebrow/Mammal Hands – St Georges, May 24

May 21, 2018

Here’s a neat piece of programming. Mammal Hands are everybody’s favourite spiritual jazz/trance/folk/electronica/minimalist (what else have you got?) trio – last seen in these parts at the Fleece last December. Tony Benjamin, as ever, captured the occasion for Bristol247.

For this return date, in the slightly more genteel ambience of St Georges, they’re paired with the long-running (nearly a decade now) improvising duo EyebrowPete Judge on trumpet & electronics and Paul Wigens on drums and occasional violin. Although this is music more rooted in improvisation, the results of the Bristol-based duo’s creation are nicely compatible with Mammal Hands’ sometimes dreamy offerings. They deploy effects, loops and repetition to create beautifully atmospheric results – less miniaturist than one of Judge’s other notable projects, the popular Three Cane Whale; less hard-driven than yet another, Get the Blessing.

It’s a remarkable trio of projects for one player to be involved with. All three have been described as cinematic, and that’s apt as the gig is part of the Filmic 2018, and both sets will feature custom visuals. Eyebrow are working with video artist Kathy Hinde. Here’s a segment from a show they did together last year, which shows how they build from simple materials to fascinating effect.

Should be a fine multi-media evening. There’s more on Eyebrow here, and lots more music (sans visuals) on their bandcamp page here. And here’s Mike Collins’ enthusiastic response to one of their other recent gigs, in Bath, along with comments on their latest recording. He calls them a “Bristol treasure”, and I’d have to agree. So a chance to hear them in Bristol’s finest venue is something that had to happen. Here’s to double bills that are more than the sum of their parts.

Disinterested recommendations

May 20, 2018

A confession: now and again I urge attendance at a gig here because I’m going, and I’d like there to be a decent crowd. The audience for the various weekly jazz gigs in Bristol isn’t huge. Nor is the readership of this little blog (discounting a recent, puzzling rise in hits from the USA – hello, mysterious American readers!)  Still, a few more listeners  sometimes turn a routine gig into one with real atmosphere.

However – recent domestic complications (good ones: not relevant here) mean I won’t manage any of the gigs I’m about to mention. So here are some disinterested recommendations, of things I’ll be sorry to see pass me by.

First up is trumpeter Loz Speyer’s Inner Space quintet at the BeBop club on Friday. Been looking forward to that one for a while as they don’t tour very often, play in the post-Ornette freebop vein (with some township vibes here and there) more convincingly than most other people ever manage, and have a superb line-up (two saxes – Chris Biscoe & Rachel Musson – & the redoubtable Olie Brice on bass. I loved their latest CD, too. The chance to hear them live is one not to miss. I will, sadly, but you don’t have to.

Ditto for Ed Jones at the Hen and Chicken on Sunday next (May 27). He’s been one of our leading saxophone voices now for decades, always puts in a convincingly gritty effort, and has a fine new recording to show off. Bound to be a great night.

Also wistful about Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita at Bath Festival on Tuesday – harp and kora such a great combination, and this duo’s recordings are magical.

Then there’s the Stroud jazz festival, next Friday through Sunday, with an excellent line-up at the less posh end of the Cotswolds: Ivo Neame’s brilliant quintet are a major draw, but quite a few excellent Bristol outfits are popping up the M5 – Dakhla Brass, who don’t play nearly enough dates, Andy Novak’s trio, Eyebrow (of whom more anon), Feelgood Experiment, and the Tom Waits project that goes out as Swordfish Trombone. Add a score of other bands from Cheltenham and round about Gloucester and it is an impressively programmed weekend in a very nice town – which I confidently anticipate missing in its entirety. Ah well, next year, definitely!

P.S. Here’s Tony Benjamin’s regular weekly preview with more on all these gigs, and some more.