‘Duets’ – Richard Fairhurst & John Taylor

Duets

A TWO-PIANO release already carrying a certain emotional depth – with epitaphs to much-missed jazz musicians Pete Saberton and Kenny Wheeler – acquired an unexpected poignancy when, on 18 July 2015, the sudden death of respected pianist John Taylor was announced. The immeasurable influence of Taylor, both as a musician and a well-loved personality and encourager, has since been well documented in an outpouring of memories, including an affectionate tribute by Simon Purcell and a comprehensive obituary in The Guardian by John Fordham.

The starting point for Duets arose from an invitation to Richard Fairhurst, in 2010, to perform at the Steinway Two Pianos Festival in London. Citing John Taylor as one of his musical heroes (“I first heard JT play when I was a teenager. I bought all his records and listened to them constantly.”), he immediately chose John to duet with, especially as they played together at John’s 70th birthday celebration concert and had also realised that this collaboration had recording potential.

Looking to achieve a contemporary angle, exploring harmony and understatement as well as treading a less beaten track, the project unfolded from the pianists’ initial focus on the music of Bill Evans; and owing much to the fine preparation and recording of the two Steinway Model Ds, Fairhurst and Taylor together created a cohesive account of beauty, intensity, clarity and, at times, remarkable placidity. Indeed, many of these eleven works actually benefit from placing ‘white gallery walls’ between them, the paused isolation providing breathing space to register the detail of each.

A case in point is the sparse, bell-like opening resonance of Epitaph to Sabbo, which evolves into constellatory wonder – and already, any division between the two instruments is almost intangible. Pete Saberton’s own 3 P’s Piece (in two parts) suggests the buoyant ostinato style of Steve Reich, its assertive, hard-wrought melodies contrasting well; and part two’s Ravel-like reflection cannot, it seems, resist in recapitulating to its former, fiendishly difficult animation.

Richard Fairhurst’s Open Book is sweepingly romantic, though also displays melancholic reticence – and the intertwining of themes feels entirely organic. Miniature Epitaph to Kenny finds its effective rhythmic propulsion in manipulated, muted piano strings; and the accentuated tango feel of Wheeler’s Sly Eyes (which John Taylor recorded with the trumpeter on the Moon album with clarinettist Gabriele Mirabassi) becomes gloriously showy in this version, its complexity never over-reaching itself.

The broad landscape of Taylor’s Evans Above is a masterpiece – seven and a half minutes which appear to reflect the creative persona of pianist Bill Evans, with folksy, dancing piano phrases breaking out of its pervading, echoic reflection. And, following on, the three-movement suite of Evans’ music paints his Very Early, Turn out the Stars and Re: Person I Knew in very different hues (and, of course, without rhythm section), whilst retaining that familiar chordal sumptuousness – sixteen minutes which demand repeated listening. To round up, Richard Fairhurst’s Growth in an Old Garden creeps both wistfully and meditatively… and for one final time, the four hands of Fairhurst and Taylor are exquisitely combined.

Released on Basho Records on 7 August 2015, Duets is available from Jazz CDs and all good jazz retailers. The originally-planned launch concert, at London’s Southbank Centre on 9 September 2015, has been sensitively re-imagined as a Jazz Piano Summit in dedication to John, featuring Richard, Michael Wollny, Gwilym Simcock and guests.

 

Richard Fairhurst piano
John Taylor piano

richardfairhurst.com
johntaylorjazz.com

Basho Records – SRCD 49-2 (2015)

‘A Room Somewhere’ – Liam Noble

LiamNoble

LISTENING BACK through the CD collection of recent years, it’s the inquiring pianism of Liam Noble that provides an edge to recordings by the likes of Mark Lockheart, Julian Siegel, Alex Garnett and the delightfully anarchic Pigfoot.

As an educator, Noble no doubt inspires the same satisfying, left-field spirit of creativity in others, whilst his 2009 trio ‘take’ on Dave Brubeck’s work was hailed by the late, great man as “an inspiration and a challenge for me to carry on in the avenues that you have opened. I’ve never gone so far into the unknown as you three but I have opened the door and peeked in. Your CD is an invitation to enter.

Now, with his first solo release in 20 years, the pianist quite remarkably reveals his intentional avoidance of writing music for the two-day studio session. And whilst such ultimate freedom in improvisation might initially seem disconcerting, the recorded opportunity to re-visit these imaginings provides the intrigue (Noble likening his deconstructed interpretations of familiar tunes to slalom skiing: “Taking out all the poles, only a bare slope remains. So I leave some in, but try to surprise myself (and the listener) about where they are”).

It’s a fascinating course to traverse, the recognisable melody of Wouldn’t It Be Loverly (the ‘room somewhere’ from My Fair Lady) coming more clearly into view towards the finishing line, once Noble has freestyled obliquely. Through its sparseness and melancholy, Paul Simon’s Tenderness is easily discerned, though flecked with sumptuous, alternative chordal colour and sensitive rubato; and Noble’s bubbling solo piano variation of Directions is striking in its acoustic interpretation of Joe Zawinul’s electronic, early fusion abstractness. Classic There Is No Greater Love swaggers and swings brightly (imagine an animated and varied conversation between Ellington and Monk) – and here, as frequently throughout the album’s sequence, the urge to replay and catch new detail is compelling. Indeed, Thelonious Monk’s own Round Midnight hides amongst the shadows in Noble’s considered ruminations, demanding careful attention.

The memory of the late, great Kenny Wheeler is honoured in a bustling reading of Sophie (from Music for Large & Small Ensembles); and standard Body and Soul is the subject of perhaps the most impressionistic of all of the pianist’s concepts, initially far removed from any thoughts of Louis or Billie – yet it slowly and delicately unfurls to reveal its beauteous jazz hues. Six White Horses is a real ear-grabber, with Noble simulating so well the US Country feel of the galloping, banjo-accompanied original, especially through judicious internal muting of the piano strings.

And then there are Noble’s own creations – Major Minor, which rings to deep-end prepared piano and percussive, Ginastera-like flair; Now, whose chiming harmonics are a joy (with Debussian overdub melodic variation Now and Then); and I Wish Played Guitar, its magnificently disturbed undertow reflecting the title.

Quite what Sir Ed (and Lady Elgar) might think of the pianist’s closing “tinkering” with their engagement celebration piece, Salut d’Amour… well, I could probably guess! But, though it takes far more liberties than Ken Russell’s classic Monitor movie of the early ’60s, it does reveal a deep understanding of the salon favourite’s harmonic structure – and ‘Edu’ enjoyed a jape or two.

So, what of the macaw sharing the cover art spotlight? It’s Liam’s “accomplice” – a visual metaphor for the colourful unpredictability of it all. Mr Brubeck would surely recommend ‘peeking in and entering.’

Released on 25 May 2015 – on Basho Records – A Room Somewhere is available from JazzCDs and all good jazz outlets.

 

Liam Noble piano

liamnoble.co.uk

Basho Records – SRCD 48-2 (2015)

‘Westerly’ – The Printmakers

Printmakers

OHHHHH… and ohhhhh again…… to an exemplary and eagerly anticipated debut release from six leading lights of British contemporary jazz, collectively known here as The Printmakers.

Imagine the perfect vocal/instrumental sextet, and it might easily comprise Nikki Iles (piano), Norma Winstone (vocals), Mike Walker (electric guitar), Mark Lockheart (saxes), Steve Watts (double bass) and James Maddren (drums). Indeed, with a band name explained as a metaphor for the subtle variances in handmade printmaking, the combined artistry revealed in new album Westerly is as satisfying – in light, shade and hue – as any wander through a gallery of fine impressionism. Recorded amidst the painterly charm of the English Lake District, the compositional palette is beautifully balanced, and includes a trio of numbers by leader Nikki Iles with Norma Winstone as lyricist (a remarkable partnership).

The expansive ten-track sequence opens with a bubbling vocal interpretation of Ralph Towner’s A Breath Away, brought to life through Winstone’s authoritative storytelling – and immediately from this personnel there’s a sense of technical ‘safe hands’ and impassioned musicality. The lovelorn vocal of Under the Canopy (an Iles/Winstone original) delicately sambas to Mark Lockheart’s deeply-coloured bass clarinet and Nikki Iles’ trademark crystalline piano – a reminder of their rich contribution to Kenny Wheeler’s Mirrors; and Paul Simon’s jaunty I Do It For Your Love is whisked away into the most sumptuous of slow ballads, Norma Winstone bringing so much weight to Simon’s poetry (and here, as throughout the album, it’s the exquisite detailing which pleases – Lockheart’s subtle, characterful tenor and then Mike Walker’s illustrative guitar glissando on “the colours ran, the orange bled the blue”).

Impish improvisational colourwash precedes an airy rendition of John Taylor’s ‘O’ – strutting to dazzling, shared vocal and sax lines plus Lockheart’s own wonderfully demonstrative soprano creativity, its sunshiny and exploratory demeanour is irresistible. Nikki Iles’ Westerly is curiously imagined in Norma Winstone’s cryptically dark cowboy lyrics, evocatively portrayed through Iles’ accordion, Mike Walker’s pitch-bent guitar and bassist Steve Swallow’s campfire banjo tailpiece; and Winstone’s effortless vocal delivery confirms why she is one of British jazz’s national treasures. The same compositional duo produce lilting, Jobimesque Tideway, its brooding coastal atmospheres conveyed by woodwind breaths and guitar gull cries – at eight minutes, its easy to luxuriate in the broad guitar and tenor extemporisations and Winstone’s gliding lyricism.

The gems in this 68-minute treasure trove keep on turning up, Ralph Towner’s animated The Glide (as heard on Nikki Iles’ trio album, Hush) dancing to Winstone’s impressive high scat and Iles’ signature piano luminosity; and the obsessional story of Joni Mitchell’s Two Grey Rooms is quietly touching, the band supporting and enhancing its resigned lyric. In direct contrast, the Celtic feel of Nikki Iles’ High Lands tumbles and reels to wordless vocal and soprano sax, as well as soaring, rocky guitar from Walker and James Maddren’s pin-sharp flamboyance at the kit. To close, Steve Swallow’s countryfied The City of Dallas finds Winstone teasingly delivering the writer’s delightfully droll lines (“I hope the evening paper’s got a lot of good stuff-in-it… stuff-in-it”!) amongst a consummate-as-ever instrumental performance led by Mike Walker’s woozy guitar.

This, unquestionably, is chamber jazz whose elegance has to be heard to be believed, such is the shared empathy and depth of musical experience on show, all realised in a musical landscape that feels as magical as it is peerless.

Released on 11 May 2015, on Basho RecordsWesterly is available from Jazz CDs and all good jazz retailers.

 

Norma Winstone voice
Nikki Iles piano, accordion
Mark Lockheart tenor sax, soprano sax, bass clarinet
Mike Walker guitar
Steve Watts bass, banjo
James Maddren drums, percussion

nikkiiles.co.uk

Basho Records – SRCD 46-2 (2015)

‘Let It Be Told’ – Julian Argüelles

LetItBeTold

IT MAY APPEAR an audaciously challenging project to pull off, arranging for big band the vibrant, unrestrained soundscapes of South African jazz. But then, from first-hand experience, saxophonist and composer Julian Argüelles is well placed to reinterpret the music of the townships as translated through the creative hearts and minds of their exiles.

As one who has been greatly influenced by South Africa’s considerable impact on European and British jazz – which had begun back in the ’60s with the Blue Notes’ exodus from the apartheid state – Julian’s early career thrived as a member of expansive, effervescent and much-lauded ’80s collective Loose Tubes (whose reunion debut became a highlight of last year’s Cheltenham Jazz Festival). And, along with brother Steve Argüelles and Django Bates (pivotal Loose Tubers who both feature in this recording), his playing and composition became infused with that same joyful abandon and spontaneity, which also included the saxophonist’s five inspiring years with the Brotherhood of Breath big band led by Blue Notes pianist Chris McGregor.

For new release Let It Be Told, drawing on his experiences as both member and collaborator with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, Argüelles was able to write specifically for this line-up. The sumptuous arrangements here include a number of compositions from the original Blue Notes’ personnel, including Dudu Pukwana’s Mra Khali which opens the set in euphoric fashion – crackling with flamboyant percussion, evocative African guitar groove and snappy horn riffs, the leader’s rapid alto improvisations are typically eloquent.

Mama Marimba promenades assuredly, its closely-clustered brass harmonies encouraging adventurous trombone and tenor sax solos. The beautiful simplicity of Miriam Makeba’s Retreat Song ‘takes a left’ midway to produce an attractive syncopated groove featuring Django Bates’ unmistakable pitch-bent synth gyrations; and the lush, restrained orchestration of You Ain’t Gonna Know Me ultimately diverts its modest, folksy tune into an infectious beat which ripples to Bates’ signature ‘steel pan’ keys.

Wide African skies are conjured in a joyous reading of Pukwana’s Diamond Express as its rolls down the tracks to high trumpet (shades of Hugh Masekela) and Argüelles’ marvellously characterful, unpredictable alto (the hypnotic horn ensemble just magnificent). Abdullah Ibrahim’s much-loved The Wedding receives surely one of the most ravishing and emotional arrangements here as Argüelles’ serene, Zawinulesque abstractness precedes its hymn-like wonder; and with the entry of that most memorable of melodies (Bates adding ethereal synth), rapt admiration is the overriding response.

Following Chris McGregor’s Amasi – which, in his own arrangement, dances in glorious celebration – comes a particularly inspired interpretation of Ladysmith Black Mambozo’s Amabutho, which brilliantly captures the idea of cantor and choral response as Argüelles’ alto invites deeply satisfying deep reed harmonies and high brassy declarations – a very firm favourite. And to close, Pukwana’s Come Again parties elatedly to Steve Argüelles’ clattering percussion, ‘smiling’ unison horns, whistles and rocky guitar.

Argüelles says that South African jazz has “always had a wonderful balance between something accessible, melodic and grooving, and something challenging, a little bit crazy.” In his own personal way, he perfectly embodies that spirit in a rich, sunshiny big band recording which is both thrilling and, at times, surprisingly moving. A great Summer groove!

Released 27 April 2015 on Basho Records, Let It Be Told is available from Jazz CDs and all good jazz retailers.

 

Julian Argüelles alto & soprano saxophones
Frankfurt Radio Big Band
featuring

Django Bates piano, keyboards
Steve Argüelles drums, percussion

julianarguelles.com

Basho Records – SRCD 47-2 (2015)

‘Pocket Compass’ – Trish Clowes

PocketCompass

THE BELIEF in staying true to oneself, particularly as a creative, improvising musician (hence Pocket Compass), is very much the thread running through this third release from British saxophonist and composer Trish Clowes. A journey to California early in 2013, including a meet-up with jazz icon Wayne Shorter, provided considerable inspiration for these latest imaginings and writings, resulting in an adventurous recorded project which reflects “the people who help us stay on the right paths.”

Concluding three years as a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist, and recording here in full for the first time with her experienced and intuitive Tangent quintet, Clowes has also chosen to collaborate with the BBC Concert Orchestra to provide a luxurious weave of timbres and textures across all eight expansive originals.

From the outset, in the first of the three orchestral sessions, Radiation unfurls into a smorgasbord of delights as the quintet dances freely and comfortably with the lush breadth of its larger counterpart; and Clowes’ commanding, lyrical tenor is equalled by the familiar high dexterity of pianist Gwilym Simcock. With the orchestra extemporising from a melodic fragment, there’s a lot going on, yet it melds intriguingly well. Tangent’s Question Mark, written ahead of the Californian trip, introduces a mood of encircling apprehension as soprano sax pirouettes to Chris Montague’s distinctively unpredictable guitar staccato, the whole episode driven by the bass and drum urgency of Calum Gourlay and James Maddren; and Porcupine is expectedly spiky as its pointed rhythms jar against the satisfying amplified ramblings of Montague, whilst Clowes’ almost mocking tenor encourages a rapid swing to rise out of glorious disorder – just perfect.

From Oscar Wilde’s Symphony in Yellow, Trish Clowes interprets his paradoxical impressions of London’s vistas – “like a yellow silken scarf, the thick fog hangs along the quay” – into the most ravishing of quintet pieces, its combination of soft lyricism and light, workaday scurrying tempered by Montague’s sinewy, shadowier moments. Chattering octaves introduce high-spirited Balloon, as Clowes’ soprano and the oboe (fondly labelled ‘jazzboe’) of the BBCCO’s Lauren Weavers spiral upwardly against boisterous quintet action (Maddren as extravagant as ever) and striking, full orchestration with flickers of the late, great Kenny Wheeler.

Heralded by imitation mammal calls, courtesy of saxophone harmonics plus delicately plucked piano strings, the serenity of whale-watching in Big Sur is communicated beautifully in echoic Pfeiffer and the Whales; and in homage to the genius of Wayne Shorter, Wayne’s Waltz dazzles with the improvisatory soprano spark of its dedicatee, Clowes impressively unwavering throughout. To close, a sensitively-balanced Chorale displays the pellucid soloing of Calum Gourlay and Gwilym Simcock; and with luscious orchestral arrangements reminiscent of Claus Ogerman, the leader’s tenor searchings here become increasingly spellbinding.

All the while – as with 2012’s And In the Night-Time She Is There – this album carries the spine-tingling realisation that Trish Clowes is constantly knocking at the door of innovation, needing to pass through to discover further, uncharted avenues. It’s that inquiring edge, along with an innate musicality, that defines this collection of intelligently-crafted, collaborative compositions – a truly compelling addition to the catalogue as well as another indicator of this artist’s undoubtable advancement.

Releasing on 10 November 2014 and available from JazzCDs via Basho Records, the Pocket Compass album launch takes place at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London on 18 November as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival 2014, including work by Guy Barker and Norma Winstone.

 

TANGENT
Trish Clowes
 composer/arranger; tenor and soprano saxophones
Gwilym Simcock piano
Chris Montague electric guitar
Calum Gourlay double bass
James Maddren drums

BBC Concert Orchestra
André de Ridder conductor

trishclowes.com

Basho Records – SRCD 45-2 (2014)

‘Big Ship’ – Christoph Stiefel, Inner Language Trio

BigShip

STEAMING FULL AHEAD, Swiss pianist Christoph Stiefel and his colleagues steer a different directional course with a second UK trio release, ‘Big Ship’ – following the isorhythmic emphasis of 2012’s ‘Live!’ album – on a journey of deeper and more melodic jazz exploration.

Stiefel’s compositional and pianistic range is impressive – often full-on-energetic and infectiously rhythmic; at other times, finding delicately reflective backwaters. And in bassist Arne Huber and drummer Kevin Chesham, he has discovered two empathetic musicians who bring their own particular expertise, sophistication and spark to these eleven originals.

Setting sail, Thalatta instantly demonstrates the Inner Language Trio’s intent – piano, bass and drums propelling forward positively with velocity and verve. Although the piece is characterised by Cristoph Stiefel’s lush chordal textures and driving momentum, he also clearly relishes the opportunity to produce high, rapid solo runs which veer into alternative keys to create a delightfully acidic edge. Attitudes’ piano voice possesses similar wayward impudence over a jaunty 5/4 +7/4 left-hand ostinato; playful bass and crashing percussion happily implicated in the lively cheekiness of it all.

Contrasting well, the quietly shifting major/minor beauty of Elegy is emphasised by Arne Huber’s rounded bass sonority and Kevin Chesham’s subtle perpetual-motion brushed snare and soft cymbals – all so perfectly poised. Pyramid is a stand-out, Stiefel’s array of arpeggioed, jagged and clear solo lines dancing prominently over subtly-muted left-hand piano chords, and a swift, bubbling tempo maintained by Huber and Chesham.

Full of lyrical finesse and measured intensity, New May is defined as much by space as by sound – eight minutes of melodic tenderness, paring down to Stiefel’s blues-grooved solo conclusion (fading all too soon). Title number Big Ship cruises at a fairly brisk rate of knots, Huber quietly vocalising his scampering bass. Stiefel’s sprightly contrapuntal and chordal display eventually invites bass and drums to intensify the pace, Chesham adding clangs, chimes and fizz throughout to great effect. First Blossom‘s charming solo piano brevity leads to the gyrations of The Dance – highly charged, yet never boiling over, it’s a particularly compelling performance incorporating prepared/muted piano strings, bells and handclaps.

The tuneful simplicity of South is followed by Angel Falls, a combination of tumbling energy and shimmering piano-led eddies amid suggestions of Stiefel’s familiar isorhythmic style. Vividly-painted Solar Glider, from tense take-off to free-flight, is a graceful album closer, the trio swirling both elatedly and calmly (with occasional buffeting) before disappearing into the blue yonder.

All this amounts to an excellent hour of jazz creativity and originality. For those who love the unpredictable excitement and invention of, say, the Alboran, Avishai Cohen or Baptiste Trotignon trios, ‘Big Ship’ (with its striking, bold cover art) is to be highly recommended. Released in the UK on 24 February 2014 by Basho Records, the album launch follows at The Forge, London, on 2 April.


Christoph Stiefel
piano
Arne Huber bass
Kevin Chesham drums

Basho Records – SRCD 44-2

bashorecords.com
christophstiefel