‘Vein plays Ravel’ – Vein

Vein plays Ravel

IF EVER there was a jazz piano trio album whose informed, creative invention deserved the proposition “just buy it”… well, Vein plays Ravel is most certainly a contender.

After more than a decade together, the partnership of pianist Michael Arbenz, drummer Florian Arbenz and bassist Thomas Lähns has spawned numerous recordings; and the Swiss trio’s recent release of originals (The Chamber Music Effect) beautifully reflects the freedom of interpretation to be found in classical chamber works. To approach the output of Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) might, then, be seen as a natural progression; though also an audacious step, as it’s a sound world brimming with much-loved melodies and impressionistic piano and orchestral textures. However, Ravel famously listened to early-20th Century jazz (meeting George Gershwin in the States) and embraced it in his writing… so there’s a sense here that, if any of the historical composers were to sit on Vein’s collective shoulders, the Frenchman might well have collaborated with the greatest enthusiasm.

Importantly, the trio are way beyond any idea of simply retouching Ravelian manuscripts with a superficial swing or a cheery, ornamented solo line – on the contrary, it’s their depth of thought which is so compelling, understanding how to substantially deconstruct then sensitively reshape this glorious music without it becoming grotesque. Seemingly a labour of love – and what a triumph!

The recognisably babbling piano Prélude to Le Tombeau de Couperin organically integrates perpetuum-mobile bass and drums, drifting in and out of its formal structure with contemporary abandon, yet always faithful to the romanticism of Ravel. Forlane‘s original 6/8 dance is initially stated with exquisite fluidity before being decorated with fine percussion and lithe bass expressions; and there’s a magical, almost levitational intricacy to the opening of Toccata – the last of Vein’s three interpretations from this six-movement work – and the most dynamic, syncopated transformation, complete with rapid piano-and-bass figures and flamboyant drumming.

Entitled Blues by Ravel himself, the already impudent-sounding middle movement of his second Violin Sonata is the perfect vehicle for Vein’s mysterious, tango-like searching as Lähns’ arco octaves toy vocally with their suspicious accompaniment, whilst similarly playful Five o’Clock Foxtrot (from opera L’Enfant et les Sortilèges) is magnificently refashioned as an episodic arrangement full of cat-and-mouse chase, elegant piano sorcery and rock-heavy riffs. Guest saxophonist Andy Sheppard joins the trio to reimagine Movement de Menuet (originally a piano sonatina) in a contemporary jazz setting of undulating tenor-led improvisation; and at first disguised within the charming, musical-box softness of Michael Arbenz’s prepared piano, the familiar motifs of Pavane Pour Une Infante Défunte evolve into one of the most limpid, even emotional interpretations imaginable (replay it many times to luxuriate in its otherworldliness).

At the centrepiece of this project is, arguably, Ravel’s most familiar work – the repetitive orchestral progression, Bolero. Though sometimes derided, this is a unique masterpiece of crescendoing orchestral arrangement – and Vein’s octet interpretation (augmented by Sheppard and a quartet of reed and brass players) is extraordinarily imaginative. The constant snare drum motif of the original is cleverly expanded upon by Florian Arbenz, somehow managing to maintain its building momentum through elaborate rhythms whilst lush, rising, almost Zawinul-like harmonies and exuberant improvisations are underpinned by morse-code piano ostinati. Initially quite a jolt to the senses – ultimately an absolute tour de force.

The title Vein plays Ravel doesn’t begin to describe the detailing and the brilliance of this project – and it wouldn’t be surprising if Maurice is right there, in the midst.

Released on 8 September 2017 and available from vein-plays-ravel.com, as well as Amazon, Apple Music, etc.

 

Michael Arbenz piano
Thomas Lähns bass
Florian Arbenz drums
featuring
Andy Sheppard tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone
(on Bolero and Mouvement de Menuet)
and
Martial In Al-bon trumpet, flugelhorn
Florian Weiss trombone
Nils Fischer soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, bass clarinet
Noah Arnold alto saxophone, tenor saxophone
(on Bolero)

vein.ch

Challenge Records – DMCHR 71179 (2017)

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‘Riser’ – Rob Luft

RobLuft_Riser

GUITARIST Rob Luft packs a lot into his debut, Riser – a quintet release of original music oozing vivacious, sun-kissed creativity. 

Based in London and still in his early twenties, Luft was awarded the 2016 Kenny Wheeler Music Prize whilst, in the same year, also achieving second place in the Montreux Jazz Guitar Competition; and his Big Bad Wolf project’s recent first issue, Pond Life, announced an intelligent approach to composition and performance (despite this album’s title modestly referring to the claim that he’s happier on a stage riser than filling out staves and ledger lines).

A contemporary feel across these fifty minutes reflects the cross-genre interests of a young personnel completed by saxophonist Joe Wright, organist/pianist Joe Webb, bassist Tom McCredie and drummer Corrie Dick. Luft’s guitar distinction is his meticulous technique as colorist, imbuing his music with either a bright, township radiance or becalmed beauty; imaginable hero influences might include Kurt Rosenwinkel, Steve Howe or Steve Hackett as he scampers across the frets in Night Songs, its organ-tremulant vibrancy intimating Weather Report with a Caribbean hook. Beware, full of perky, almost Celtic unison riffs, highlights Luft’s quite astonishing soloing rapidity; and title track Riser is dappled with a rocking-chair guitar quaintness associated with ’70s prog before reaching full-Leslie pop-rocking assuredness.

It’s palpable how many concepts whizz around this quintet, so there’s scant evidence of unnecessarily drawing-out ideas. Different Colours of Silence‘s affecting and serene guitar-and-sax aurora comes to dance energetically to Corrie Dick’s skittering percussion, and the afterglow segue into Dust Settles can’t help eventually whipping up a proud, memorable anthem; yet the constant, meditative, swirling washes of both Blue, White and Dreaming and Slow Potion imply the painterly imagery of soundtrack. There’s fun in the air as bass-grooving Shorty and St. Brian I scream their instrumental chants through honking tenor, wailing guitar, heavily-beaten rhythms and sustained organ; and the Spanish guitar delicacy of extended closer We Are All Slowly Leaving (with immaculate intonation from Luft) accelerates into a dizzying house-beat haze of fluid sax improvisation and searing, clashing guitar clusters.

If these myriad expressions sound at risk of being intangible or incohesive… well, it’s thanks to Rob Luft’s artistic overview that it all actually flows with great continuity, the band’s searching spirit driving the album through swathes of textural interest, warmth and esprit.

Riser? Luft is certainly on that upward trajectory.

Released on 28 July 2017 and available as CD or digital download from Edition Records at Bandcamp.

 

Rob Luft guitar
Joe Wright tenor saxophone
Joe Webb Hammond organ, piano, harmonium
Tom McCredie bass
Corrie Dick drums

robluft.co.uk

Edition Records – EDN1095 (2017)

‘Embodying the Light – a dedication to John Coltrane’ – Tommy Smith

TSQ_Embodying

IT MIGHT be an ‘age thing’, but my appreciation of contemporary jazz releases is increasingly deepened by ‘living them’ over a period of time – there can be many layers of interest to peel back and discover.

Perhaps there was something of that concept of arrival in Scottish saxophonist Tommy Smith’s mind as he finally “transcended to the club” of interpreters of John Coltrane’s music with this quartet dedication, marking the coincidence of his 50th birthday this year with the same anniversary of Trane’s passing. Indeed, a wry smile was brought on by Smith’s story that, as a youngster, he spent his hard-saved cash on Coltrane’s free-jazz Ascension, only to head back to the record store and demand his money back as he “unequivocally hated it” (failing to do so, he simply left it there and stormed out). How many of us can relate to such a tale – that years later, with the benefit of experience and more mature ears, comes the realisation of just how brilliant a certain recording always was?!

Tommy Smith’s credentials as leader, sideman and educator need little introduction; and it’s testament to all that experience that he and his colleagues here – pianist Pete Johnstone, double bassist Calum Gourlay and drummer Sebastiaan de Krom – approached this live-studio recording without rehearsal, to achieve the energy he was seeking. The resulting Embodying the Light is a zesty 79-minute acoustic session which seamlessly intertwines five Trane tunes with three of Smith’s, along with an especially sizzling Gershwin rendition.

Fast-swinging and expansive Transformation (which a 15-year-old Smith first conceived as ‘Traneing for Life’) ascends through the written sequences, prompting his own breathless improvisations; and against the incessant rhythmic verve, Pete Johnstone’s piano sparkles with jabbing, leaping invention. Faithful to the original, Dear Lord‘s elegant balance is detailed with swooning tenor phrasings; and the richness of Naima becomes emboldened by a buoyant central section featuring Smith’s effusive lines.

As the album proceeds, there’s a sense that the quartet manages to capture the immediacy of early-’60s Coltrane – even Smith’s title-track blues evokes the period through memorable riffs and blithe outlook, as does the urgent groove of Resolution with its angular piano edge and modal sax explorations against a fiery Gourlay/de Krom rhythm section. The original cacophony of The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost is reinterpreted as a more gently-rippling anthemic quest, whilst Gershwin’s Summertime (from 1961’s ‘My Favorite Things’) dismisses any notion of ‘tired cover’. Smith’s propulsive Embodying the Darkness finds the leader at his most adventurous, more intensely invoking the free spirit of the dedicatee; and to conclude, Trane’s Transition displays an appealing fluidity, with Pete (‘Tyner’?) Johnstone ramping-up the irresistible fervour with chordal vigour and high-flying improv.

Tommy Smith describes his tribute to John Coltrane as “probably the most terrifying journey you can prepare for, since one is never ready to relinquish the music for the Master”. Given the genuine focus and passion on display here, this quartet has timed it to perfection.

Released on 17 July 2017, Embodying the Light is available from Spartacus Records, Amazon, etc.

Video: live at BBC Radio Scotland’s Jazz Nights at the Quay.

 

Tommy Smith tenor saxophone
Pete Johnstone piano
Calum Gourlay bass
Sebastiaan de Krom drums

tommy-smith.scot

Spartacus Records – STS025 (2017)

‘Associated with Water’ – Christian Balvig, Frederik Bülow, Adrian Christensen

Associated with Water

THE BEGUILING, reflective sleeve imagery of Associated with Water – the debut album from pianist Christian Balvig, drummer Frederik Bülow and bassist Adrian Christensen – offers something of a visual prelude to music of distinction by this Nordic piano trio.

Read the full review at LondonJazz News…

Released on 14 July 2017 and available from AMPProper Music, Amazon, iTunes, etc.

 

Christian Balvig piano
Frederik Bülow drums
Adrian Christensen bass

AMP Music & Records – AT015 (2017)

‘Pond Life’ – Big Bad Wolf

A DEBUT RELEASE whose fresh, invigorating sounds stem from an intriguing co-compositional method, Big Bad Wolf’s Pond Life is an instrumental/vocal delight.

The direction taken by trombonist Owen Dawson, guitarist Rob Luft, electric bassist Michael De Souza and drummer Jay Davis begins with recorded, open-ended group improvisation. On playback, ideas born out of these free expressions are then developed, structured and honed with fine attention to detail, resulting in music which radiates an experimental free-spiritedness combined with intelligent musicality. This young band’s many, collective influences include Nirvana, Radiohead, The Invisible, Björk and Django Bates, so their creations naturally weave together diverse strands of rock, pop and jazz, occasionally integrating refined, layered vocals and synthesizer traces redolent of ’70s progressive rock and the Canterbury scene.

Melodically and texturally, this blissful music coruscates to an enticing pairing of trombone and guitar; and the democratic creativity of the quartet (who studied jazz at the Royal Academy of Music and Leeds College of Music) is key to their mission of ‘forging an individual, contemporary sound whilst still honouring the improvisational element of the jazz tradition’. Indeed, Owen Dawson’s cool, breezy trombone lines in Canary immediately intimate Groove Armada, as Rob Luft’s classical guitar delicacy implies the Anthony Phillips era of Genesis; but there’s also a gritty edge to the band’s output (Michael De Souza’s six-string bass a key element), with overdriven guitar and vocal lines perhaps suggesting Everything Everything. Flats in Dagenham‘s sleek, summery trombone promenade is interspersed with crackling guitar-and-bass motifs and anthemic choruses, heralding joyously mellow, sustained electric guitar improv. It seems the band’s initial pooling and sequencing of ideas are key to these unpredictable, episodic progressions which feature adroit, sometimes head-scratching instrumental combinations.

Luft’s stylistic range colours each of these eight pieces quite differently, his rock riffs in Frog underpinning its brassy, cinematic pride, whilst Dawson’s radiophonic, wailing trombone is carried by a mind-boggling swathe of pulsating guitars and tricky, percussive rhythms. In repose, this quartet is just as appealing – Quiet Coach‘s charm defined by dreamy, almost nursery-rhyme guitar, blithe trombone melodies and soft vocal harmonies. But a swift gear-change is never far away, with Hopkins’ Choice rippling to ska-like fervency; both Grassfish and title track Pond Life recalling prog’s flightiness (the latter complete with Pink Floyd ‘Welcome to the Machine’ synth detail); and closing track The Plight of the Typewriter capturing the supreme balance these players achieve as its sublime serenity evolves into majestic funk.

Pond Life might well be approached from an ‘ambient’ perspective; a feel-good, windows-down cruiser. Yet it offers so much more in terms of well-crafted new sounds informed by and excitingly recalling the legacy of music’s previous decades. That surely is a successful basis for any band – and hopefully this gem might be the first of many from Big Bad Wolf.

Released on 16 July 2017 and available as CD or digital download from Bandcamp.

Video: Pond Life, live at Sofar London.

 

Owen Dawson trombone
Rob Luft guitars
Michael De Souza six-string electric bass (Bass VI)
Jay Davis drums

bigbadwolf.london

Recorded, mixed and mastered by Alex Killpartrick
Financially supported by Help Musicians UK (Peter Whittingham Award)

Self-Released (2017)

‘Turn Up The Quiet’ – Diana Krall

DianaKrall-Quiet

RETURNING TO her undoubted jazz mastery, following 2015 album Wallflower‘s divergence into pop/rock ballad interpretations, new release Turn Up The Quiet finds Diana Krall’s characteristically restrained, closely-miked voice caressing romantic, twilight gems such as Cole Porter’s Night and Day and Rodgers and Hart’s Isn’t it Romantic.

The edgy pianistic flair and energetic vocals to be found in some of the multiple Grammy award-winning artist’s earlier recordings aren’t so evident here, yet there’s no denying the dinner-jazz finesse and attention to detail conjured by Krall in three specific line-ups – trio, quartet and quintet – providing a comfortable blend of differing timbres. Relishing the creative freedom to record and, in some cases, substantially refashion eleven standards with some of her favourite musicians, “to see what would happen”, this thirteenth album would become her final studio collaboration with renowned producer Tommy LiPuma, who recently passed away; but the craft of their long, artistic partnership is palpable.

Breezy ‘jazz manouche’ opener Like Someone in Love (Van Heusen/Burke) introduces the precise trio offerings with guitarist Russell Malone and bassist Christian McBride, who also present a slick rendition of Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies where Malone’s muted rhythms are especially attractive; and Johnny Mercer’s Dream, in a serene string arrangement by Alan Broadbent, is classic, romantic Krall. The pianist’s longtime association with guitarist Anthony Wilson, bassist John Clayton Jnr, and drummer Jeff Hamilton shines in quartet numbers such as Nat King Cole’s L-O-V-E (complete with dizzy, discordant piano detail) and dusky, Mexican rumba, Sway. Stuart Duncan’s fiddle completes a quintet line-up with guitarist Marc Ribot, bassist Tony Garnier and drummer Karriem Riggins, and softly jaunty 1930s tune I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You) is beautifully measured. In their hands, Moonglow (Hudson/Mills) becomes hushedly sublime, and the perky guitar shuffle of I’ll See You in My Dreams – a glimpse of Krall’s livelier character, hinting at moods of both George Shearing and Stéphane Grappelli – is both deft and polished.

Maybe a few more fireworks might have pepped up the dynamic range to greater effect, adding a soupçon of unpredictability – but the clarity of these commercially-appealing performances certainly showcases an artist who still thrives on the joy of pure, acoustic jazz familiarity and improvisation. As Krall herself says: “Sometimes you just have to turn up the quiet to be heard a little better”.

Released on 5 May 2017 and available from Diana Krall’s official online store, Amazon, iTunes, etc.

 

Diana Krall piano, vocals
with
Russell Malone
guitar
Christian McBride bass
and
Anthony Wilson
guitar
John Clayton Jr bass
Jeff Hamilton drums
and
Marc Ribot
guitar
Tony Garnier bass
Karriem Riggins drums
Stuart Duncan fiddle

dianakrall.com

Verve (2017)

‘Khamira’ – Khamira

Khamira

EXHILARATING and mesmeric, the eponymous debut release from seven-piece Khamira fuses Welsh folk, jazz and rock with Indian classical music.

It was a masterclass at the Berklee-affiliated Global Music Institute in New Delhi by the four Welsh members of this band (who are united in separate jazz/folk outfit, Burum) which led to the concept of combining a standard jazz quartet of trumpet, piano, bass and drums with the Indian colours of sarangi and tabla, plus vocals/Konnakol and guitar. Blurring the edges of genres and cultures here feels entirely organic, summoning the seminal ’70s fusion experiments of John McLaughlin and Miles Davis, as well as finding a modern-day crossover connection with artists such as Dwiki Dharmawhan and Dewa Budjana.

New arrangements of traditional Welsh songs and Indian classical melodies are combined with two original compositions to deliver fifty-five minutes of extensive, instrumental splendour. Particularly impressive is the versatility of Suhail Yusuf Khan’s stringed sarangi in partnering so melodically with Tomos Williams’ trumpet and Aditya Balani’s electric guitar; and the incisive, often rapid top-note resonances of Vishal Nagar’s tabla accentuate the rhythmic grooves of Dave Jones (piano), Aidan Thorne (electric bass) and Mark O’Connor (drums).

It’s a sound world which increasingly engages, as Khamira’s palette is so varied and the blends so intriguing. Slow-release Pan O’wn y Gwanwyn (The Song of Spring) awakens to spacial trumpet and sarangi conversations before launching a lurching, saturated jazz/rock pulse underpinned by tremulant organ and thrashing percussion; and Basant‘s heady, vocalised Indian flavours – including the ‘jugalbandi’ of sarangi and tabla – are complemented by gravelly electric bass and urgent trumpet improv.

Jazz-grooving, eleven-minute Answers reinforces that this is an immersive, progressive experience, rather than a collection of snappy, individual ‘tunes’ – but this band’s open and ever-changing landscape, here with exquisite Paulo Fresu-style muted trumpet, becomes so appealing. Ffarwel i Gymru / Morey Nain shimmers to plaintive trumpet and a sustained sarangi thread, supporting its beautifully inflected Indian vocal; and the vibrant, contemporary jazz piano of Dance of Nothingness prompts bluesy guitar and frenzied sarangi. The initial, Eastern serenity of Y Gwydd (The Weaver’s Song) belies the enthralling explosion of drums, tabla, Konnakol and electric piano to be revealed later, very much in the spirit of jazz/world fusion; and wistful hymn Hiraeth am Feirion (Longing for Meirionnydd), pairing trumpet and sarangi over the gentle ebb of tabla, creates a restrained yet anthemic sundown.

Released on 2 May 2017, Khamira is available as CD or digital download from Bandcamp. Catch a ten-minute video impression here.

 

Tomos Williams trumpet
Suhail Yusuf Khan sarangi, vocal
Aditya Balani guitar
Dave Jones piano, keys
Aidan Thorne electric bass
Vishal Nagar tabla, vocal
Mark O’Connor drums

khamira.net

Recordiau Bona – BOPA 003 (2017)