Category Archives: Now Hear This!

Music you should hear at least once…

London Jazz Festival on Radio 3: Robert Glasper Trio

Robert Glasper

As I’ve mentioned over on ‘On The Beat,’ Radio 3 are currently broadcasting from the London Jazz Festival, and last night’s excellent gig by the Robert Glasper Trio is now on the iPlayer for a week.

Click here for more, including links to the programme, a review of the gig on the LondonJazz blog, and Glasper’s website. A treat for jazz fans. (The gig, that is!).

In memoriam: Henryk Gorecki

Via Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise, an obituary by The Rambler‘s Tim Rutherford-Jones for Henryk Gorecki, who has died at the age of seventy-six.

Gorecki will perhaps be best remembered as the composer of the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs which leapt to fame in a recording by the London Sinfonietta and the soprano Dawn Upshaw, which is how I first came across it.

His choral piece Totus tuus probably comes a close second.

Jazz into Classical goes anew: Officium Novum

Album imagePursuing the line of thought about the relationship between jazz and classical music: recently released on the great ECM label is Officium Novum, the follow-up to the world-wide phenomenon that was 1993’s Officium, featuring a collaboration between saxophonist Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble,

I’ve written before about the incorporation of improvisation into classical music; here, it’s taken back even earlier in musical history.

The first album presented music by Perotin, de Morales and Dufay, Gregorian chant and anonymous Hungarian and Czech composers from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Garbarek paints lyrical arabesques around the Hilliard’s singing, decorating and embellishing their archaic repertoire with very modern improvised lines.

There’s something deeply contemplative about the result; Garbarek’s meditative ruminations on the unvoiced lyrical potential of the music sung by the Hilliard seems to open up a door onto a different plane, to which the singing aspires but cannot reach. Garbarek’s improvised melodies ought to sound anachronistic against the medieval repertoire: and yet they don’t. Somehow, the synergy works to make the sax lines sound ancient, and, at the same time, to make the ancient songs sound modern.

Officium Novum widens the musical geography to include Armenian music, Arvo Part and compositions by Garbarek himself.

Detractors have lamented the intrusion of a saxophonist and improvised lines onto the music and the Hilliard, and point to the ensemble’s disc of Perotin (called, simply, Perotin), as a purists’ dream (and it is a fantastic disc). But, as the sales figures for Officium proved, and as they no doubt will for the new album, there is a niche for this type of ‘cross-over’ music. The link between ancient and modern continues to beguile modern listeners, divide critics, and foment debate: all to the good.

Percussion Play: Ionisation

Varèse’s Ionisation.

Pierre Boulez conducting the Ensemble InterContemporain.

Playing around with different kinds of pitch (fixed, variable or indefinite) and rhythm, Ionisation was the first piece written for percussion ensemble alone. Nicholas Slonimsky, who conducted the premiere in 1933, talks about the composer in an archived recorded interview here from 1973. He describes Varèse as ”a huge, French desert.”

It definitely gets funky at around the 2-minute mark.

Neglected Masterpieces: Manu Katche’s ‘Neighbourhood’

Very few albums, in my opinion, match Kind of Blue, Miles Davis’ legendary 1959 recording. But I think I have finally found one.

Album coverDrummer-turned-leader Manu Katché’s Neighbourhood displays a quite awe-inspiring line-up of jazz legends (a factor so significant that the album cover is simply a list of players on the recording, which shows you the stature afforded the musicians); trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, saxophonist Jan Garbarek, with pianist Marcin Wasilewski and bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz from Stanko’s own quartet, not to mention Katché himself.

Katché is a masterful and versatile dummer, having played alongside pop icons Peter Gabriel and Sting as well as being a colossus amonst jazz drummers – previous credits include Garbarek’s I Took Up The Runes, also for ECM. Neighbourhood is his debut recording as leader for the label, and has something of the timeless quality that made Kind of Blue so special: delicate, sparse textures that allow the music room to breathe, colourful harmonies that are leisurely in their exploration of the potential of modality and the twelve-bar blues.  The indebtedness to Davis’s album is perhaps most obvious on Miles Away which employs a similar bass-line and 6/8 rhythmic feel to All Blues.

Here’s a video for ‘Number One’ from the album:

There’s a simplicity about the music on the album that speaks of great profundity; as the leader and the drummer, Katché is completely alive to every nuance offered by Wasilewski’s delicate artistry, Garbarek’s plangent melodic lines and Stanko’s lyricism. There’s a relaxed funkiness to ‘Take Off And Land’ that still manages to generate a compelling rhythmic drive. 

Not many albums can stand next to Kind of Blue: but this one, perhaps, just might.

Neglected masterpieces: John Surman’s Stranger than Fiction

Just occasionally, a jazz album comes along that stands outside of its time, and becomes a classic. Miles Davis’ 1959 recording, Kind of Blue, Charles Mingus’ Ah Um, John Coltrane’s Blue Train; the list goes on. More often, perhaps, albums are released that as equally as timeless, yet somehow fail to attract the acclaim and the status that they might deserve.

Album artStranger than Fiction, by British saxophonist John Surman, is a wonderfully lyrical and expressive album on which the pieces display the trademark organic, melodic improvisational skills of Surman, matched by some beautiful exploratory playing from pianist John Taylor, whose careful attention to balance and texture recalls some of Morton Feldman’s piano pieces. There’s some understated support from bassist Chris Laurence, and delicate drumming from John Marshall.

The wonderful climbing line that opens ‘Tess,’ or the asymmetrical shifting patterns of the accompaniment which opens ‘Moonshine Dancer’ show the evocative colours that the group can weave; the mood is contemplative, almost spiritual, and the album never puts a foot wrong. No gesture is wasted, no phrase surplus to requirements: deft yet sure, the players are working together seamlessly yet creating plenty of space for one another.

Here’s ‘Moonshine Dancer;’

Released in 2007 on the ECM label, home of such artists as Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Marcin Wasilewski and other greats, the album is presented in the hallmark ECM style, monochromatic colours with no textural clutter and expressionist cover photography.

Inventive, expressive, and timeless. Listen for yourself to extracts from the album on Amazon here: you won’t be disappointed.

Exuberance in music: Joe Zawinul’s ‘Patriots’

For sheer unbridled exuberance in music and matchless energy, here’s the late, great Joe Zawinul’s ‘Zawinul Syndicate’ performing Patriots live in 1997.

After an all too brief but dizzying bass solo from the great Richard Bona, the unstoppable rhythmic drive of the piece kicks in: it’s hard not to be carried away by its infectious joie de vivre and sheer pleasure in playing. Once the groove has begun, propelled by some astonishing percussion work, it never lets up: the piece just cooks nicely and with such ease, you can forget that it’s leading at such a frenetic pace.

Zawinul led the great fusion band Weather Report in the 1970s and 80s, a legendary ensemble including ex-Miles Davis sideman, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist Jaco Pastorius (listen to Teen Town to get an idea of Jaco’s astonishing virtuosity and raising of the bass to a melodic instrument; Bach would have loved it), and drummer Peter Erskine. The group’s dazzling blending of jazz, rock and world music saw the creation of great albums such as Black Market, Heavy Weather, 8.30 and Sportin’ Life.

 Zawinul himself played with Miles Davis for a brief period, and wrote the lyrical In A Silent Way from Davis’ album of the same name, and also played on Davis’ Bitches Brew, the fastest-selling jazz album of all time.

Zawinul’s own Zawinul Syndicate saw the same driving and energetic performances typified in Patriots right up until Zawinul’s death in September, 2007.

That’s the secret to music-making, and to great performances: passion, commitment and joy in performing.

(And to the members of the University Chamber Choir 2008-09, for whom I wrote a choral arrangement of Patriots: remember this ?! Happy days.)