Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Gig Review: David Murray Infinity Quartet - Live At St George 16.10.2013

The first thing to hit you when David Murray’s first notes come exploding out is just how big (and perfect) his sound his. The tenor saxophone has always been the weapon of choice for sax players who want to make an impact, but Murray truly raises the bar when it comes to really filling a room with his sound. And what a big round pure tone sound it is too. In fact it could also over-dominate his group were he not so generous, and they not so willing to grab any opportunity that came their way.

Rod Williams for example is a pianist who has played on and off with Murray over the years, but here tonight the two men were completely simpatico, Williams playing underneath Murray subtley and gently, but always highly musically, and when his solo moments came, he made them shine with tasteful aplomb. Nasheet Waits by contrast is a young lion of a drummer who every moment played his heart out, and showcased some impressive chops, as well as why he won the Downbeat poll for drummer of the year. But surely the discovery of the night for me was bassist Jaribu Shahid. A cool and relaxed looking player you’ll never find, and his playing though tight and melodically rhythmic, managed to look effortless, despite the dextrous fury on display from his nimble figures and constantly dancing feet.

Murray’s quartet embraced a wide spectrum of musical styles and ideas, and together they managed to always keep things swinging and soulful, even when dipping into more avant garde or free territory – which perhaps has always been David Murray’s greatest strength as a player, to be able to play more ‘out’ and yet keep things deeply passionate and highly musical. If you have ever heard him recorded then you need to do yourself the favour and listen to him live – it’s an almost spiritual experience.

For me, his musical high point during the night came when he finally decided to break out his bass clarinet. Recognised by many as perhaps the premier bass clarinettist of his time, Murray can always be relied on to get as many sounds as possible out of the instrument, and frequently he generates a sultry, smoky and dense tone that can work wonders for the right tune. Here though, as much as were able to enjoy the dark huskiness of the clarinet, Murray still managed to up his game further. Playing slow and soulful, he occasionally created interludes where his breathing was able to make ‘popping’ bass vocal sounds in a rhythmic and melodic way that I’d wager most of the audience had ever heard before.

A superb group, headed by one of the greatest tenorists of all time (and I will argue that if you don’t agree), and with excellent opening support from local heroes The Jim Blomfield Trio, this was a fantastic musical night out. Full of bold, bright and melodic improvisation, this was clearly not a night for those not inclined to give a little ‘free’ a chance, but the soul and power of each of the players was squeezed brilliantly into every moment. Here’s hoping Murray returns to our shores very very soon.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Review: Troyka - Troyka

Troyka are a London trio made up of piano/keyboard player Kit Downes, guitarist Chris Montague and drummer Joshua Blackmore, and whatever funk or soul-jazz preconceptions you may have about the classic organ-guitar-drums lineup here are already wrong.

Full of virtuosity, bags of energy and incredibly inclusive, here everything is thrown into the mix – jazz, rock, dance, funk, and more – and everything comes with a distinct cerebral edge. This is not a funky groove workout. More this is a unique experiment that doesn’t stand close to anything else you’ve ever heard. And as such you’re warned to approach with caution, but absolutely encouraged to approach.

“Tax Return” kicks things off with a driving rhythmic workout that snakes away into something more serious and free – a form of free-jazz-funk - but though good, you can’t help but wish that the killer groove went on for just a bit longer. “Clint” that follows it (obviously a dedication to Mr Eastwood, whose films have more than occasionally boasted a great jazz inflected score), comes armed with some fiery slide guitar that showcases how perfectly suited Montague would be to a career as a full-time bluesman or funk god.

The real meat of the album though is clearly in the second half, where things ramp up to a higher level, with even tighter playing and some wonderfully off-kilter melodies and sounds. Witness the album highlight ‘Noonian Song’ (who knows the Star Trek connection?). Constantly shifting, with some delightfully wonky sounding guitar and beautifully languid keyboard playing, the groove builds and evolves into that perfect kind of musical moment that most albums can only hope to possess.

Troyka is not perfect. For many it will prove too winding and multi-directional and perhaps lacking focus, choosing as it does to explore as much as possible, rather than just settling with a perhaps expected route - conversely though that is also the major part of its charm. Sure they could get down with some funky grooves, or rock out, but that would be too easy. Instead they have created a clever, multi-layed, multi-textured and not without humour diverse debut that, while requesting your full attention to get the most out of it, reveals new elements with each fresh listen. And it leaves you hungry for just what they might come up with next.


Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Review: Stan Getz - Anniversary/Serenity

Reviewing Trish Clowes and being reminded about her possessing that similar melodic and lush sound lead me to dig out and polish up one of my favourite Getz albums. Well, two in fact.

1987 was an interesting year for Stan Getz. Now approaching his 60th year, he was considerably ill, although recently finally free of drugs and drink, and was largely considered a has-been by the music world. Having spent more than a decade attempting to follow the shifting fashions in music and for the most part producing mostly forgettable or uneven inconsistent recordings, 1986 saw him form his first new acoustic quartet for some time and recorded the more-than-solid ‘Voyage’. A strong recording, it sold a good if not spectacular amount and marked for some a small if notable comeback.

The new year then, marked the real growth of the Stan Getz comeback. Performing live with his new band, he found a kindred spirit in piano man Kenny Barron, and together they formed one of the best sounds of Getz’s already strong career. Musically and critically successful concerts led to Getz playing a set at the CafĂ© Montmartre in Copenhagen - for many years his new home, having lived there on-and-off with his wife of over thirty years, Swedish aristocrat Monica Silfverskiold.

The entire concert recorded live, with no overdubs, and broadcast on radio, and also later released as two separate live albums, shows ‘The Sound’ - as he was dubbed - at an incredible new musical high. The first half of the show would be released as ‘Anniversary’, with the second half later released as ‘Serenity’. And both are essential Getz items. Not just great live albums, but great albums in their own right.

Avoiding anything sounding like the Bossa that had propelled him into the mainstream in the mid-Sixties, the music focuses entirely on the velvety densely-sculpted takes on jazz standards similar to that with which he had started his career. There’s no cool posturing here either - just straight up and emotional playing from start to finish.

A jaw-droppingly good ‘El Cahon’ opens the concert with outstanding performances from the entire band and ‘What Is This Thing Called Love’ is delivered at a fast uptempo pace. And despite his then frailty, easily detectable in his few words to the audience, Getz’s tone has lost none of its warmth or melody enriching qualities. Entrancing long and flowing lines are played through, over and around the chords in a truly masterful show of not just musicianship, but beautiful melody.

Kenny Barron and the rhythm section, consisting of Rufus Reid on bass and Victor Lewis on drums, more than acquit themselves, accompanying Getz perfectly, whatever mood his playing dictates. Barron especially shows himself to be one of the best players to have ever shared a stage with Getz, his playing light and tender one moment, funky the next. His solo on ‘I Can’t Get Started’ is a jaw-dropping highlight worth the price of admission alone.

The first half of the show is the slower, ‘bluer’ Stan, and is collected on the superb must-have ‘Anniversary’. The second half of the show, released after the success of the first, makes up ‘Serenity’ – an odd choice of title given that the music present on this second disc is the more upbeat and driving material. Perhaps the best song on this set is the ballad ‘Falling In Love’, but ‘Green Dolphin Street’ and the Barron original ‘Voyage’ make for exhilerating listening. Plus Getz’s takes on ‘Blood Count’ and ‘Stella By Starlight’ are arguably without peer.

Recorded to celebrate his then 60th birthday, you can tell that both Getz and his sidemen really pushed for that extra level of perfection. Bouncing back from both cancer and a stalled career, this truly is a great musical comeback, and arguably some of his best recordings ever. Although taken from a live gig, the sound quality and recording are of the highest calibre, and as such both albums come highly recommended. If forced to choose only one, then ‘Anniversary’ just nudges it ahead of ‘Serenity’. But, ultimately, would you want to leave a gig halfway through? Get both albums and hear one of the best gigs you always wished you’d went to.


Monday, 7 October 2013

Review: Trish Clowes - And In The Night-Time She Is There

London based saxophonist Trish Clowes had a strong slowburner of a debut album that, though ambitious, probably had a bit too much in there. The full orchestra in places tended to distract from Clowes’ fantastic talents, and although her compositional abilities were nicely highlighted, her playing was perhaps not shown in its strongest light.

‘Tangent’ however did feature some excellent players, and guitarist Chris Montague, bassist Callum Gourlay and drummer James Maddren all return here to provide a powerhouse quartet with Clowes. But this time though, star pianist Gwiliym Simcock drops in to lend a stellar guest appearance, also with Heidi Parsons on cello, and even some vocals provided by the much welcome addition of Kathleen Willison.

Willison also brings ‘The Sphinx’ to the table (based in part on the Oscar Wilde poem of the same name) and manages to boast a new career best guitar solo from Chris Montague, who also counters Clowes on the strong duet number ‘Little Tune’, a beautifully romantic piece that showcases the perfect pairing of these two A-list performers. ‘Seven’ too, though not a duet, also features some superb interplay between the two soloists, that almost makes you hope Montague abandons all other projects just to work more with Clowes.

‘Iris Nonet’ and ‘Animator’ boasts some brilliant piano work courtesy of Simcock and an improvising string quartet (led by the equally brilliant Thomas Gould) that just sound incredible and have to be heard to be believed. ‘Iris Nonet’ in turn throws every emotional style into the mix; languid romance one moment, complex and darker turns the next, and even some welcome relaxed humour, it all comes together to make a full-to-bursting musical movement that for now at least is sure to be Trish Clowes calling card.

So what of Clowes, and ‘And In The Night Time…’? Still a wonderful composer, Clowes here has stepped up a gear, and even better displays here talents as a saxophonist. Her softer-toned tenor sounding even more confident than on her debut, the sometimes too frequent Stan Getz comparisons are in-truth perhaps appropriate here, boasting as she does not only his silky smooth sound, but also his richly melodic masterful command of the instrument as well.

A great collection of pieces, and a rewardingly rich tapestry when taken as a whole, ‘And In The Night Time…’ is Clowes at a new peak. Sat at the head of the premier league of contemporary UK musicians, based on what she has produced here, she will only go from strength to strength, and you really must make an effort to catch her live when you have the chance.


Review: Miles Davis - Agharta & Pangaea

‘Agharta’ and its sister recording ‘Pangaea’ recorded in 1975 are together the last official music Miles Davis would produce in the 1970s – before the six-year retirement until his return in 1981. Miles previous studio album proper ‘On The Corner’ had been released way back in 1972, and since then he had been touring with a band made up of more funk and rock musicians than from the jazz fraternity. His only released albums since ‘On The Corner’ had been the mix-and-match collections of previously recorded unreleased music ‘Big Fun’ and ‘Get Up With It’, the latter of which featured most of the musicians Miles would tour with between ’72 and ’75.

Recorded on February 1st at the Osaka Festival Hall, ‘Agharta’ gives us the afternoon performance of the band, while ‘Pangaea’ gives us the evening performance from the same day. In effect then, rather than two separate double-disc sets, it has more the feel of a complete four-disc set (surely a repackaging opportunity for another Columbia box).

At this time, Miles himself was in a very bad way. Recently recovered from two broken ankles, thanks to a horrific car crash, and suffering from ill health and fatigue, Miles was – having already successfully kicked a massive heroin addiction earlier in his life – now also at the peak of his cocaine usage. Not that you would even guess any of this from the music here though. The band themselves are deserving on all numbers of such superlatives as powerful and thrilling, and Miles especially is on stellar form, laying down strong and fast runs on the trumpet one moment, slow plaintive melodies the next.

‘Agharta’ itself kicks off with ‘Prelude’, beginning with a churning theme that at the time was simply dubbed ‘Funk’. Developed from the Jack Johnson side one piece ‘Right Off’, the mood is violent and driving, with Miles stunning solo silencing any who had claimed he’d lost some of his playing ability - despite chronic illness and pain, he here plays with great unbridled energy. Shortly before the seventeen minute mark, the music shifts itself into what has now become known as the ‘Agharta Prelude’. A strong and uplifting piece, it is a highlight and certainly a moment to win over any would-be converts. The gentle ‘Maiysha’ that follows, relaxed and calm, is a more focused and intense performance than the version from ‘Get Up With It’, with a simply beautiful flute solo by Sonny Fortune.

Getting off to a furious start, the second disc is not as strong as the first, but still maintains great energy, taking in a faster harder version of ‘Right Off’, an electric take on the motifs from the classic modal number ‘So What’ and plenty of Miles on organ - giving the trumpet for the most part a back seat until the last number where Miles plays with a sublime and lyrical, almost Spanish, feeling.

While ‘Agharta’ is the more cohesive throughout, ‘Pangaea’ on the other hand is a record of two extremes - the yin and yang of Miles 70’s fusion work. Disc ones forty minute ‘Zimbabwe’ is driving grinding edgy funk with a heavy fast rock beat and snarling twin guitars, and is arguably the most electrifying of Miles recordings from this time. ‘Gondwana’ alternatively begins with just flute and gentle percussion, and providing one of the most gentle-sounding pieces of music to be heard on any Miles record since ‘In A Silent Way’.

Like ‘Agharta’, hints of earlier songs are present, but effectively they are simply used as a springboard for the band to jump into new territory and show their improvisation chops. And everything is woven together with such skill, that it comes together as just one long piece over two discs, continuously flowing from one groove to the next, with the first disc ending on a fade and disc two beginning the way disc one had ended. The overall effect is that this music could go on forever.

With Miles for some four years, throughout Michael Henderson provides his always outstanding funky and unshakable bass grooves, effectively anchoring, and driving the band. ‘Prelude’ in particular benefits, and in return gives out some spectacular energetic climaxes. Al Foster too drums pure rhythm, and together he and Henderson are a formidable partnership, which percussionist extraordinaire Mtume enthusiastically takes every opportunity to enhance.

On the front line of the band Reggie Lucas lays down his trademark riffs and rhythm work, while Pete Cosey once again shows himself to be perhaps one of the most under-recognised guitarists of all any time. Fearless and wildly experimental, yet incredibly funky and groovy, his experimentation with the guitar is outstanding, and the soloing he produces is nothing short of phenomenal. Similarly, Sonny Fortune on tenor, alto and soprano saxophones outdoes almost all of Miles previous fusion sax players (no-one outdoes Wayne Shorter). But the bands strongest point is not any these. The true shining presence is the whole cohesiveness of the band, weaving all their contributions into each others and making music that literally no-one else could.

‘Dark Magus’, ‘Agharta’ and ‘Pangaea’ then are all released from the same year long phase of Miles career, and as such may seem like excess, but in truth they all have such a different feel from each other, that each recording sounds totally fresh and different when placed against another. ‘Agharta’ probably makes the best first pick for the uninitiated, but ‘Pangaea’ is every bit as dynamic and challenging in its own right. Certainly if you can get hold of both of them, then do so, as they are incendiary works.

A minor note : where ‘Dark Magus’ was also previously a Japan only release and is now more easily available and superbly presented for a good price, ‘Agharta’ and ‘Pangaea’ have had slightly less love afforded them. As such, the American masters have a more muddy sounding mix with less defined bass and some cloudy sounding instruments, while even the artwork is pretty poor. For the full beauty that these recordings can convey, go for the remastered Japanese versions. Properly remastered and remixed with superb clear sound and excellent artwork, these albums just glow.