Phil Bancroft - Small as the World
Saxophonist Phil Bancroft gathered together a host of musical friends for a cosy coffee time session in the front room of the Southbank Centre. The show reflects on the home, what home means to different people and how our perceptions of 'home' change as we develop through life. The result of these seemingly random yet thoughtful considerations is a delightful, humorous display of live jazz interspersed with topical talk and video. Like the home, the music (for the most part) had its own rhythmic and harmonic home (the only exception being the free jazz second piece, about childhood, which perhaps signifies a playful rebellion against the home). The lineup consisted of Edinburgh-based Phil Bancroft on the alto saxophone, Glasgow-based Paul Harrison on the piano, with trumpet, violin, guitar, bass and drums. You can tell that these guys are from Scotland, as there is a poignant Celtic undertow to the music - I can tell, being an ex-patriot born in Aberdeen and raised in the highlands. While the first piece 'Swim, Jenny, Swim' has a definite Michael Brecker edge to it, the folky, modal melodies revolving around a rolling 5/4 groove maintain a rootsy, tonal and rhythmic 'home'. The timbral combination of saxophone, violin and trumpet in the second tune almost reminds me of the bagpipes and the fiddle in traditional folk music, while the long, held notes sing a gentle lullaby. In terms of 'home' this brings me right back home to the music that I was brought up with, with its soothing, tranquil melodies - calm, like the surface of a lake. The third piece brings into play the issues of childhood - both remembering childhood from an adult's point of view, and actually being that child, playing with a group of friends. In contrast to the second piece, this piece takes the music to the opposite end of the spectrum; relying heavily on free improvisation in response to the childhood images projected on screen, and bringing out a different dimension to the band's oeuvre. This piece fluctuates between order and chaos; the 'order' being a swinging zig-zag motif initiated by the saxophone, and echoed by the other instruments, which grooves momentarily before collapsing again and clearing for the 'chaos' - the individual soloists, sometimes two instruments in interplay with one another. The effect is of a game; at times, inspired and motivated, while at others tense and frustrated - as if the music is the reenactment of a group of children discovering a new game, breaking the rules, getting fed up with one another and then moving onto the next thing (this was my interpretation, anyway). The tail off ending was a nice touch, perhaps this was deliberate? Finally, to raise the issue of technology in the home and to explore the influences that it has had on our lifestyles, the live musicians played an improvised composition with another two musicians, at home, via Skype. The result was laughable, but perhaps not exactly what they had intended. However, I thought that this is an area in jazz which could be experimented with a bit more, so I was much obliged that this group opened the front door. Moreover, I found the musicians and the band genuine and personable. Nothing was absolutely polished; I found that the rough edges and quirky imperfections had a charm in themselves, and made for a very human performance. Overall, one would never have thought to theme a musical performance on the home. Nevertheless, I thought that the musicians did a Sterling job (excuse the pun), and raised a number of interesting questions and ideas. An insightful and stimulating performance - utterly bonkers but brilliant.
National Portrait Gallery
Yazz Ahmed's music combines her Arabic heritage from her native Bahrain in the Persian Gulf, with 1950's jazz. The result is a smouldering hotpot of mystical improvised music played with the exotic instrumental setting of vibraphone, flugelhorn, bass and percussion. The first piece begins with milky, ambient vibraphone gently pulsating through the atmosphere, eventually joined by the rest of the ensemble in a rustic, gyrating groove. The melodic lines, which grow biologically, have a hypnotic, almost ritualistic quality to them. The improvisations are sparse, leaving much space and clarity, while the bass and percussion maintain a vivacious bubbling of movement and viscosity below the surface. The piece begins and ended with an angular, unfocused bass ostinato, which throws the listener into a trance-like void of uncertainty. The second piece was more avant-garde; a jazz waltz permeated with diminished and tritonal harmony. The third piece is, again, more folky sounding. The interesting 15/8 meter, subdivided into 4+4+4+3 creates a smoky, intoxicating and heady dynamic, and lending itself to sizzling improvisation. Yazz Ahmed's flugelhorn has a husky, breathy and almost papery tone to it. Its haunting inflections and fluttering middle-Eastern scales throw a certain sonority and spirituality into the music - it simply draws you in. This is complemented by the sweet glucose of the vibraphone, whose improvisation glistens with viscosity and restlessness; the clear, foil-like quality softening and sweetening the sultry sound of the ensemble. These voices are underpinned by the rough, abrasive sounds of the percussion and bass, creating a sound world that is rich, delicate and exquisite. The entire gig was enchanting, seducing and sensual, but not without its soulful personality - which, at some times, lulls you into a false sense of security, while at other times, bristles with attitude and assertiveness.
The only weak point of the performance was the choice of space. I think that the performance would have worked much better in a larger space. I found the art gallery staff quite disruptive, because they were persistently asking people to move on when they were standing in the wrong place, and in doing so, they were talking over the music. Had the gig been in an alternative, larger space, then we would not have had these restriction issues - which I found quite off-putting. Apart from that, the performance was magical.
Long-time award winning saxophonist, Peter King, led an outstanding quartet in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Demonstrating his virtuosity on arrangements of tunes by Billy Strayhorn, Chick Corea and John Coltrane, along with some of this own compositions, Peter King played an excellent set. His fluid, quicksilver alto saxophone sound is well-projected, and resonant with crystal clarity. His finger-work is extremely nimble and dexterous, with elaborate, scalic improvisations that spiral, cascade and twist and turn with the smoothness and muscularity of a rattlesnake. On the Chick Corea tune 'Inner Space', these were complemented by the chunky and playful improvisation of pianist Steve Melling - with a delightful quirkiness yet a sophistication to it that would leave many contemporary pianists standing. Steve's composition 'Bees Groove' is a sultry, almost cheeky blues, with a swinging, easy feel and elegantly elaborated melody. His own piano solo contained that classic sophistication yet sleazy, stumping swing that has been mastered as an art in itself, while the saxophone sang freely in an elastic, bird-like improvisation. The bass solo by Geoff Gasgoyne was florid and polyrhythmic. Peter King followed this with his own take on the Billy Strayhorn tune 'Lush Life' which he completely improvised on the sax - apart from the last few bars. He has an incredibly intricate inner-ear, his fingers translating the orchestra inside his head onto the keys of the saxophone, with lightning-fast fluency, slipping through the chord changes with ease. The improvisational style is thoroughly elaborated, leaving more attuned ears to discern the melody amongst the ornamented leaps and runs - a very elaborate rendition. The piano entered at exactly the right moment, and was soon joined by the percussion and base in a sensitively-timed wash of colour. 'The World of Trane' presented a montage of the music of John Coltrane; beginning with the arhythmic, modal, profoundly spiritual hymn, amidst with the collateral of improvised percussion and the sweet, silky, swirling textures of the piano; leaping into the 'Giant Steps' chord changes before dissolving again into a free arhythmic pool or mirror-like, cascading finesse; finishing with the haunting and bewitching 'My Favourite Things' jazz waltz. Peter King had just enough time to do one more; his burning bebop arrangement of Joshua, spinning off into 3/4 sections was very tightly carried, with flaming licks and crackling exchanges between the saxophone and drums. While the bebop sections were always progressing towards a definitive climactic point, the 3/4 sections offered a glance inwards at an alternative, introspective world (for a few split seconds per time). The cataclysmic energy of the ending brought the set to an explosive finale, which paved the way perfectly for Roy Haynes. Stylishly done.
It would be impossible to do adequate justice to a maverick musician such as Roy Haynes, within such a limited review. The way in which he was welcomed onto the stage with the rapture of an encore is enough to release a hint. With a career spanning well over sixty years, Roy Haynes has played pretty much every avenue within jazz - including swing, bebop, fusion and avant garde - not to mention pop, soul, and his own personal genre 'Snap Crackle'... He began the concert with an amazing drum solo - with his feet! The first composition with the full rhythm section had a light, breezy, almost suburban sounding smoothness to it, which reminded me of the modern jazz group Oregon, with the cosmopolitan flavour of American gospel, blues and soul. I could tell from the playing that Roy and his band were experienced and versatile across many genres. Roy Haynes seemed to feel his way through the groove, blending effortlessly with the rest of the ensemble and enhancing what the others were doing with their solos. His timing was the epitome of precision-point tightness, and he played with an extraordinary level of elasticity and subtlety - following every twist and turn of the phrasing, responding to its every shade and mood, and embossing it with his unique style. The rhythmic interpretation of the saxophone was so relaxed, that it was almost out-of-sync, but it was always pulled back in by the irrepressible magnetism of the ensemble. The stunning interplay between the saxophone and the piano, following each other as they spiralled upwards, was always brought back into play with the recurring motif. The pianist and saxophonist seemed to be able to read each others' minds, and they were always finishing off one another's phrases - the saxophone tending to escape the harmonic framework before being drawn back in by the piano. Jazz on another level.
Piotr Jordan led this passionate and danceable ensemble for a night of hot jazz at the Vortex. When I arrived, I was welcomed in to a warm, festive atmosphere in the club - a vibe of healthy fun and debauchery. The delivery was confident, virtuosic and stylishly flamboyant, with bags of charm, wit and personality. In the dance numbers, the rhythm section naturally pushed ahead with momentum, launching the string players into an emotionally rousing frenzy, prompting spontaneously hand clapping and foot stomping from the audience. The highlight for me had to be the Transylvanian folk song, a work of wonderful wizardry. These players came together through their joy and love of the musical tradition which has been passed down from generation to generation, and enjoyed by all in the decade to come. Devilishly delightful.
Down to the Bone
Down to the Bone is a young, hip and cool group of musicians combining a diverse melting pot of influences - funk, soul, rock, Latin and Brazilian - in an exhilarating live experience. The pumping, percussive disco beats are beefed out with thick, crusty congas and juicy, electrified samba piano and pulsating, psychedelic rhythm guitar. The musical content is groove-based, containing flexible, open platforms that really allow the horn players to stretch out and to explore their musical territory through vibed-out, improvised solos, over slinky jazz harmony chord changes. The band radiate a heated, vibrant energy. They command the stage with such ease and a have great natural fusion which gets the audience going, creating a carnival atmosphere. By the end of tonight's gig, they left the busy club screaming and pleading for more, and the atmosphere was tingling with fiesta fever. Their highly energised 'Supercharged' combines a throbbing lead guitar playing the melody, interspersed with chunky brass riffs which are catchy, whilst not being cheesy or corny, making it impossible not to dance. The alto saxophone solo towards the end displayed fluent improvisational skill, springing with life, vitality and flavour, with nicely structured builds and extensive use of timbral trills, flittering in and out of the changes. The rhythm section were truly working up a sweat in this tune. After the encore, the band had everyone in the club on their feet for a standing ovation.
I made it just in time to catch the end of this set, with this beautiful Brazilian band. Being a dedicated Brazilian music lover, the rush was definitely worth it. The band combined heavy, rock solid percussion with clinging, clamouring piano solos and an explosive melt of saxophone and vocals. The highlights were hearing two songs by a couple of my favourite artists 'Cravo E Canela' (Milton Nascimiento) - check out the George Duke version - and 'Come With Me' (Tania Maria). Vocalist Jandira Silva brought the sunlight of her native Brazil into this basement club, displaying a natural vivacity, radiance and charm - which was a pleasure to witness. Saxophonist Steve Rubie nailed the arrangements and the improvisation, leading a super-tight band, which had everyone up dancing all night. Moreover, it is such a great feeling to hear such gems of tunes being played in public, after only hearing them on record. Tight, sophisticated and funky, I would definitely recommend this band.
I have to say that out of all the jazz clubs that I have experienced in London this week, the 606 has to be my favourite. This south-west London establishment may be a little off the beaten track, but it is busy enough to create a great atmosphere where the guests intermingle freely with the staff, yet spacious enough not to be completely maxxed-out. Furthermore, when I came here last Saturday to see Christian Garrick, I recalled that the staff were extremely welcoming and accommodating. When I arrived tonight, slightly out of breath, I was treated to a complimentary orange juice and friendly conversations with the landlady and front-of-house girl, which really made my experience here. Definitely my new hangout!