Tag Archives: jazz

All that jazz: gigs of the year on Radio 3

As the year draws to a close, time to reflect on the highlights of Radio 3’s series of jazz broadcasts over the course of the past twelve months.

Stand-out gigs for me were Mark Lockheart’s In Deep in session back in January, a combined broadcast from The Jazz Bar of the Martin Zenker Group and David Patrick’s Jazz Bar Quartet featuring a promising-souding sax player called Sam Coombs (who, to my ears, seems like a fledgling Vaughn Hawthorne), and Gilad Atzmon live at Ronnie Scott’s.  Special mention also to John Scofield at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival.

Two different gigs appeared on the same programme, eclectic pianist Martial Solal and the great trumpeter Tomas Stanko; I’m not sure if this should count, as strictly speaking both performances were from last year, but the Stanko set was fantastic.

I’m not sure if any of the above compare to my favourite set from Jazz on 3 of all time, the Marcin Wasilewski trio recorded live at the King’s Place back in 2009. Fledged under the wing of Tomasz Stanko, Wasilewski has an expensive touch and a delicate yet profound improvisatory manner, where no gesture or phrase is unnecessary – he reminds me of another bastion of the ECM label, Keith Jarrett.

Admittedly, 2009 was something of a bumper year, and we were spoilt for choice: the Robert Mitchell trio at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival, Helge Lien at Pizza Express, and a studio session by Martin Speake and Bobo Stenson. My MP3 player plays these sets more often than any others. Except for the Wasilewski one, which, were it on LP, would have worn out by now.

Jazz on 3 has a marvellous habit of sometimes re-broadcasting programmes, and occasionally playing parts of the original gigs that weren’t featured in the original airing. If these come round again, be sure to catch them.

Here’s looking forward to 2011: thanks, Jazz on 3: worth the licence fee alone.

Those were my favourites: what were yours ?

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!).

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.

Jazz into Classical will go…

Like an aberrant relative of whom one is slightly wary and mistrustful, jazz has always occupied a slightly equivocal place in relation to the classical music tradition. Briefly adored by Les Six and the aspiring avant-garde in early twentieth-century France, it has never quite managed to find itself a comfortable place in the canon of Western classical music.

George Gershwin
Feeling blue: Gershwin

At the start of the twentieth-century, composers working in France were seized with enthusiasm for the latest craze, jazz, with printed sheet music of works by Scott Joplin and performances by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra fuelling the interests of composers such as Satie and the group, Les Six. Joplin’s opera Treemonisha ,written back in 1910 (although not performed in full realisation until over sixty years later), and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess from 1935, both show established classical forms embracing jazz: indeed, although famed for pieces such as the ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ and other ragtime piano works, Joplin always referred to his piece as an ‘opera.’

Evidence of the enthusiasm for jazz can be found in the adoption of ragtime music, as in Stravinsky’s Ragtime; or from Satie’s Parade; although, as always with Stravinsky, you get the sense that Stravinsky is playing with jazz as an objective phenomenon, rather than as a visceral, gut-instinct style; he dissects it and plays with it from a distance, somehow, rather than it being the lifeblood of his writing. Antheil’s A Jazz Symphony saw jazz invading orchestral music in 1925.

Jazz harmonies abound in the music of Francis Poulenc. The second movement of Ravel’s Violin Sonata is entitled ‘Blues’ and is evidence of Ravel’s fascination with jazz. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue opens with the glissando clarinet that immediately speaks of jazz playing; the harmonic palette of the piece is littered with extended jazz chords and copious use of the ‘blue’ note (flattened seventh).

Bad Boy of British contemporary music Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Blood on the Floor sees an improvising jazz trio set amidst a brash, contemporary-sounding ensemble. Turnage acknowledges that jazz and funk are passions of his, and when you listen to Momentum or Your Rockabye, you can hear it.

Artists themselves can be seen to cross the apparently insurmountable classical-jazz divide: André Previn conducts Debussy or improvises with Oscar Peterson; violinist Yehudi Meuhin improvises with Stephan Grapelli;

More recently, former Radio 3 Young Generation Artist Gwilym Simcock is working hard to blur the division between classical and jazz genres. Jazz pianist Julian Joseph collaborated with Harry Christophers’ ‘The Sixteen’ in a programme of Monteverdi for the Spitalfields Festival, up-dating the improvisation expected of keyboard players in the Baroque period for the modern, jazz-infused age. And trumpeter Wynton Marsalis stands astride the classical and jazz genres, moving between both with ease and demonstrating phenomenal technical ability in both fields.

Improvisation has always been at the heart of classical music: from extemporised continuo parts in the Baroque to Mozart’s own improvised cadenzas in the piano concerti, and some elements of spontaneous realisation in the aleatoric music of the 1960s: improvisation belongs with classical music, and isn’t necessarily a separate discipline. Improvisation itself is the very life-blood of jazz, the spontaneous creation of music as a response to the moment of performance, keeping jazz very much alive.

As the twentieth-century turned into the twenty-first, jazz began to establish more of a foothold in classical music, and now it’s sometimes difficult to extricate one from the other in the work of composers such as Louis Andriessen, Turnage, Simcock and others.

Jazz, classical music and improvisation: made for each other.

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.)

Music, artistry and the problem of popularity.

Mahler’s portentous statement about being appreciated not in his own lifetime but after his death has been negated by the Digital Age. Thanks to the affordability of home computing, music software and YouTube, bedroom music studios have become ubiquitous, amateur performances are posted on-line, and you can have your fifteen minutes of fame spread in short bursts across the globe.

But popularity’s problem exists not only in the medium, which makes performers of many but professionals of few, but in the message. Alexander Goehr identifies the beginning of the avant-garde movement as being the moment when music turned its back on the audience and lost its appeal, when it became concerned less with communication with its audience than expressing the ideas of the composer, irrespective of whether the audience related to those ideas or not. Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system: Stockhausen’s electronica; the New Complexity movement of the 1970s; or jazz’s escape from tonal and harmonic structures into the realms of spontaneous improvisation in free jazz in the 60s with Ornette Coleman: such times often coincide with episodes of great creativity but little commercial success – audiences can’t understand what is going on, and feel left behind.

Pop music, however, is all about instant gratification: as its name implies, it is written to appeal to people immediately, and survives (or expires) for as long as that particular musical fad holds sway – and sells records.

Jonathan Harvey considers the relationship between artist and audience in the third chapter of Music and Inspiration, where he comments on composers such as Hindemith and Copland actually altering the path of their musical development, in order to directly engage the listener once more after they felt they had alienated them.

Is it important to consider the appeal of your music as you write it ? Should the listener be taken into account ? If you are using a tonal or harmonic palette which might be difficult for the audience to follow, or are using effects and technical devices that are challenging to the ear, is that a factor that should govern the way a composition is realised ? Or, more succinctly, can a composer take the listener into account when writing without compromising their artistry, what it is they are saying and how they are saying it ?

Of course, it is not all about making the listener’s life easy: otherwise, Schoenberg would not have created the twelve-tone system, and Ferneyhough would never have written a note; and new music is all about a new listener experience. Then again, composing ought not to be about deliberately challenging the listener in such a way as to alienate them: ought it ?

Composing in the Darmstadt School in the 1960’s was aggressively confrontational, seeking willfully to alienate the listener in order, it seems, to validate its own modernity by repudiating consonant sonorities associated with tradition. As Hans Werner Henze writes, ‘Any encounter with the audience that was not catastrophic and scandalous would defile the artist.’

But time is a great agent of acclimatisation. What caused an uproar when first written, or met with audience bewilderment and critical hostility – the Rite of Spring, for instance – often settles down into becoming a part of the great canon of concert repertoire. The message a piece is trying to convey, innovations it is trying to wreak, or a musical language that at first seems incomprehensible, often crystallises over time, usually with greater listener experience.

I speak from personal experience here. When I was about 11, in a spirit of musical enquiry, I lowered onto the record-player an LP from my father’s collection, an album with a slightly far-out artistic cover depicting a sax player called, the liner notes revealed, Charlie Parker.

I’d been playing the piano from a tender age, the usual fodder of examination repertoire distilled from the Classical tradition, but this was utterly alien to me: I had no idea what was going on, and put it to the back of the stack of records. About three years later, I’d been playing some jazz pieces with a clarinettist – Benny Goodman, Count Basie – and I came across the same LP. This time, when I listened to it, I could see where the music was going, harmonically-speaking: I could hear the underlying harmonies and had a sense of the musical landscape the notes Parker’s improvisation occupied. The music hadn’t changed in the intervening years: I had, my listening experience had widened and my understanding had developed. (Although I’m not sure I will ever comprehend Free Jazz).

Perhaps composers should follow their musical Muse wherever it leads them, trusting in posterity to allow audiences to comprehend their work if the contemporary critical response is not positive. Artistic integrity versus commercial appeal: where do you stand ?

The jazz-man’s necessary beat: rhythm in Swing.

Jazz may be all about the elasticity of time, about syncopation and the louche indolence of swing, but, to paraphrase George Gershwin, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got a regular pulse. (I can see why Ira changed the lyrics…)

You can’t pull against something if it’s not firmly fixed: in jazz, that’s the hi-hat. The crisp snap of the hi-hat on the second and fourth beat of a swing tune in 4/4 represents the twin pillars of the piece’s rhythm, around which swing can loll and flounce, secure in the knowledge that it is underpinned by a rock-solid rhythmic foundation. Music is often about the suspension of time, or what the American composer Elliot Carter has called the debate between ‘chronometric time versus psychological time,’ the regular pulse of the daily passage of life pitted against a time-scale imposed by the piece of music itself. Time, in jazz, slips and slides like a novice ice-skater, but one clinging firmly to the hoarding lining the rink: the security of the drum-kit.

Listen to the opening of Milestones, where the crisp homophony of the sideways triadic motion in the saxes and trumpet only works because the percussion defines exactly where the beats against which they are pulling lie: the driving ride cymbal and crisp rim-shot anchoring the beats.

And Dave Brubeck’s Take Five succeeds because the bass player roots the pulse firmly on the tonic ‘E’ every time the five-beat cycle begins anew, along with the pianist’s left-hand and a solid kick on the bass-drum.

(And, as an extra bonus, I love the descisive thwack on the snare(less) drum that marks the beginning of Desmond’s alto-sax solo when the tune ends in this clip).

The writer Michael Hall’s epithet which titles this post is spot on: the hi-hat provides the necessary beat. Next time you’re playing in a jazz ensemble, or improvising a solo, or simply listening to some Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie, keep an ear out for the drummer: he’s holding it all together.