‘Live’ – Brass Mask

Brass Mask LIVE

OUTRAGEOUS… cacophonous… majestic… and totally absorbing! Bandleader and Loop Collective saxophonist Tom Challenger brings the natural, live-stage experience of this nine-piece ensemble out from under the spotlights and into our hands. 

Imagine colourful New Orleans street promenades coalescing with free jazz in an unfettered, contemporary spirit, and that might just begin to identify the simmering-yet-brazen brilliance of Brass Mask. Exuberant 2013 studio debut Spy Boy first revealed the power of this coming-together of mostly London-based talent. Now, Live combines developments of some of those joyous, smile-inducing compositions/arrangements from Challenger with new material; and one look at his experimental personnel hints at the firecrackling show in prospect – George Crowley, Rory Simmons, Alex Bonney, Nathaniel Cross, Theon Cross, Dan Nicholls, John Blease and Jon Scott.

Tom Challenger’s inspiration for this project stems from various online bootlegs which feature, for example, the raw energy of John Coltrane, Mardi Gras Indians and Haitian Rara bands. But this is a live album with an edge, as he and Alex Bonney sensitively link and support the recorded gig (from the capital’s Servant Jazz Quarters) with imaginatively-crafted electronics, as well as ‘field recordings’ of “mangled YouTube and iPhone samples of found sound”. And it’s a blast!

The bleating, effected horns of Francilia herald Shallow Water – a slow, stirring, processional funeral march which trudges to wailing tenors and trumpets (quite different from the dance-groove original); Lil’ Liza Jane‘s infectious, shuffling trad playfulness echoes to almost sneery horn riffs amidst the most vociferous tuba, organ and percussion; and trancelike The Bague is just as cunningly shambolic. Held-back gospel tune Indian Red feels made for such a live setting, preening itself with hard-blown brass before breaking into swingin’ double-time abandon, whilst the grungy, rasping blues of I Thank You Jesus, underpinned by Nicholls’ sustained, palpitating keys and Theon Cross’s wildly whooping tuba, demands to be heard over and over.

Nyodi‘s oscillating canvas invites a delightfully unexpected Joe Zawinul-type tuba groove (à la River People), complemented by Wayne Shorter-style tenor tumblings and, appropriately, sustained, Weather Reportian chord clusters. Rapid, madcap capers in The Merman suggest Madness on acid; and the glorious, reedy, push-pull riff of Francis P (all ten minutes or more of it, compared to the original of less than three) enjoys a frenetic phantasmagoria of organ/keys, jousting trumpets, flailing tuba and the oxymoron of an ascending electronic wind-down.

A splendid, visceral hullabaloo. Turn up the volume and immerse yourself in it. Released on 21 April 2017, Brass Mask’s Live is available as CD or digital album from Bandcamp.

 

Tom Challenger tenor sax, clarinet
George Crowley tenor sax, clarinet
Rory Simmons trumpet
Alex Bonney trumpet
Nathaniel Cross trombone
Theon Cross tuba
Dan Nicholls organ, keyboards, percussion
John Blease drums, percussion
Jon Scott percussion

tom challenger.co.uk
loop collective.org

Babel Label – BDV15137 (2017)

‘Klangspuren’ – Michael Wollny Trio in concert (CD + DVD)

Klangspuren

A GLORIOUS opportunity to experience – both audibly and visually – the sparky, voltaic intensity of pianist Michael Wollny’s current trio, limited CD + DVD collectors’ edition Klangspuren (sound/feel) captures the excitement of two enthralling concerts from Hamburg and Leverkusen.

Described by ACT Music founder Siggi Loch as a long-standing “creative pillar” of the label (especially in the wake of the tragic, untimely death of Esbjörn Svensson), Michael Wollny has steadily grown in stature as a particularly intelligent musician. The extraordinary breadth of his original Weltentraum album, for example, was cleverly themed around the words or music of song/’lied’; and his pianistic approach is equally diverse, balancing heavy, tumultuous attack with dark, nocturnal serenity and suspension. Taking material chiefly from the Weltentraum and Nachtfahrten studio albums of 2014 and 2015 respectively – and with DVD footage capturing the kind of verve found in 2014’s Weltentraum Live CD – Wollny and his colleagues Christian Weber (bass) and Eric Schaefer (drums) deliver typically seductive atmospheres which are a joy to be drawn into.

As well as an accomplished composer, Wollny is historically a master arranger – and opening this recorded Hamburg set on CD, he elevates Angelo Badalamenti’s Questions in a World of Blue (from Twin Peaks, originally sung by Julee Cruise) into achingly measured, Bachian loftiness, complemented by Schaefer’s re-working of Guillaume de Machaut’s 14thC motet De Desconfort before the trio unfurl their percussive wings in his own Motette No.1 – and any similarities between Wollny and Svensson in those velocitious, high-end piano improvisations are both exciting and strangely comforting, as if the baton has been naturally passed down. But here is a contemporary jazz beacon with his own, strong pianistic and compositional identity, the melodic pop-catchiness of his When the Sleeper Wakes erupting magnificently to the trio’s combined clamour, double-time snaps and often unpredictable progression.

Rising out of a lugubrious, solidly-beaten death march, Nachtfahrten‘s sustained, intensifying weightiness can be quite affecting, eventually suggesting arrival at the brilliance of a morning sunrise; Schaefer’s Arséne Somnambule perpetuates the nocturnal theme, its panicky central perambulations imagining a sleepwalk to quickly erase from memory; and the vibrant interplay in such storytelling remains consistently engaging. White Moon (from the pen of one of the pianist’s early teachers, Chris Beier) is appropriately delicate as it shimmers to internal strings and muted percussion/bass, whilst Wollny’s arrangement of Alban Berg’s Nacht – with pleasing, jarring motifs which are instantly recognisable from the Weltentraum releases – is thrillingly executed by this thunderous, three-piece wall of sound; and the restrained beauty of seven-minute original, Der Wanderer – with a Mussorgsky-like solidity in places – might dispel any traditional preconception of the jazz piano trio format (a composition to lose oneself in).

The accompanying live DVD opens a window on the detail and passion of Wollny and his trio. Multi-angled, and allowing an intimate, over-the-shoulder view of Wollny’s technique, it also highlights the trio’s rapport. At the ferocious peak of numbers such as Phlegma Fighter and When the Sleeper Wakes, the pianist’s artistic bravura is mesmerising to witness, his most extreme flamboyance sometimes sacrificing accuracy for dynamic effect (wonderful to see); yet, the contrasting limpidity of Lasse! and delightful Little People, with the satisfaction of scrutinising all three instrumentalists’ individual subtleties, is just as rewarding.

Klangspuren is available from ACT Music – and ‘limited’ edition may well be pretty accurate. So don’t miss this feast for ears and eyes.

 

Michael Wollny piano
Christian Weber bass
Eric Schaefer drums

michaelwollny.com

ACT Music – ACT 6019-2 (2016)

‘Live’ – Will Butterworth Trio

willbutterworth

PERHAPS it’s due to the powerful, enigmatic mystery of music that it sometimes only unlocks its bejewelled treasures to listeners when they’re good and ready.

Pianist Will Butterworth’s live trio album, recorded at London’s Pizza Express Jazz Club, has been drifting in and out of my consciousness for some time now – but only recently has it flowered into the lively/balmy wonder that it undoubtedly is. Butterworth is joined by the familiar names of bassist Henrik Jensen and drummer Pete Ibbetson in five expansive numbers which clearly require the space and focus to fully appreciate their various perambulations and nuances.

Hailing from Edinburgh – born into a classical music environment – and resident in London for the past decade, Will Butterworth is known for his work with drummer Dylan Howe in reinterpreting Stravinsky, as well as his sideman role on the British jazz scene. He reflects on the interesting way in which this particular gig unfolded as, in the true spirit of improvisation, most of the trio’s playing was totally unlike their rehearsal: “When we finished… we had no idea what had happened… it was so different to our expectations. We try to get away from the individual solo with a backing track. So I guess… unexpected stuff will happen.” Certainly the resulting live capture (with the occasional clinking wine glass) reveals a fertile air of malleability and equality, rather than a bland, pre-meditated piano showcase with rhythmic accompaniment.

Butterworth’s own The One opens the set in restless, almost Bachian tones, as the pianist pushes spry singular lines and bold chordal colour – and, as it builds, already the combined strength of all three musicians is evident, with Ibbetson’s drums and percussion satisfyingly prominent in the mix and Jensen’s resonant, fluid bass in meaningful dialogue with the piano. Will’s style is difficult to pin down, somewhere between Bill Evans and John Law, and his own brightly-swinging Blues (at ten minutes’ duration) also evokes the spirit of Ellington, Monk and Tyner – his varietal cadences ripple with that kind of bravura and invention, happily matched by bass and drums. In this trio’s hands, Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne standard I Fall In Love Too Easily finds that beauteous sweet spot of elegance balanced with unexpected, subtly-jarring pianistic intervals and clusters; it’s as if the “no idea what happened” that Butterworth referred to is at work in this triangle, providing an edge which takes it far from any sense of the soporific (and his solo coda briefly reveals Rachmaninov-like romanticism).

The Syndicate (another Butterworth original) becomes a jaunty conversation between the three instrumentalists, the space left between just as important as the elaborate, teasing extemporisations. Here, Jensen and Ibbetson instigate the anarchic momentum, and Butterworth relishes the opportunity to dart in and out as the breathless, pacey intensity becomes extraordinarily compelling (maybe all cutlery activity was involuntarily suspended at this point!). Finally, an interpretation of Willard Robison’s ballad Old Folks, its initial tenderness eventually breaking into brisk walking pace, with Butterworth’s luminescent soloing sounding Brubeckian at times – and Jensen and Ibbetson crackle in a momentary duet. At almost fifteen minutes in length, it feels like time suspended.

This is a piano trio album which is totally accessible, yet continually and politely fizzes with interest. The recorded sound is close and direct, yet benefits from ‘at the gig’ reality, engendering that exciting sense of jazz ‘in the moment’.

Released on 16 March 2015, the album is available from Music Chamber Records (take a listen to the audio samples there), iTunes and Amazon.

 

Will Butterworth piano
Henrik Jensen bass
Pete Ibbetson drums

Sleeve illustration by Chloe Vallance

willbutterworth.com

Music Chamber Records – MC0014 (2015)

‘Live at The Verdict’ – Frank Harrison Trio

FrankHarrison_Verdict

IN APRIL 2014, acclaimed British jazz pianist Frank Harrison launched his latest studio album, Lunaris – a work I described then as an “anthology of warmth, exploration, unpredictability and, ultimately, possessing an overriding sense of equanimity”, created with the new trio line-up of Dave Whitford (double bass) and Enzo Zirilli (drums).

During each evening of the Lunaris launch tour, Harrison set up his own digital recorder to capture a personal record of their gigs. After replaying the session from The Verdict, Brighton, it was decided to release five of the extended tracks as a free download (or as a CD which includes an excellent ten-minute bonus number). The resulting Live at The Verdict album, Frank freely declares, is ‘lo-fi’ – but, once acclimatised to that sonic zone (which exudes the excitement of a live feed), it’s a beautiful account of the freedom and conviviality to be found in this trio’s live performances.

The animation of Jerome Kern’s I’m Old Fashioned (from Lunaris) becomes enhanced in this setting, Harrison brightly improvising and then passing the baton to Whitford and Zirilli who, individually, are equal to the challenge, and appreciated by the audience. The ambience of this recording conjures memories of great jazz gigs we’ve been privileged to be a part of – the thrill of the unexpected, the marvelling of the very real musicianship unfolding before our eyes. Harrison’s own Flowing at Rest (from the Sideways album) enjoys the space to slowburn, with Whitford extemporising broadly and eloquently; and Fats Waller’s Jitterbug Waltz strides out to the easy-going pace of Whitford and Zirilli, with Harrison glittering (as he so often does) at the upper extremities of the piano before prompting a four-square percussive solo display from Zirilli – absolute magic!

Cole Porter’s Everything I Love swings with unabashed abandon, an irresistibly cohesive display from the whole trio who intuitively track every next move, Harrison inviting deft solo explorations from his drummer; and jaunty, familiar standard Tea for Two is unusually reinterpreted as a restrained, ornamented ballad with glorious echoes of Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen. Bonus track Autumn Leaves (recorded live in Oxford) appears as never before, introduced by a resonantly top-end percussive bass display from Whitford. ‘Name that tune’ contenders would struggle with this contemporary twist of the Joseph Kosma favourite – testament to Harrison’s spirit of retaining tradition yet imaginatively reinventing as, with clarity, he solos brightly and dextrously. This track alone is worth Harrison’s modest CD price tag, Zirilli’s toms working overtime and Whitford as nimble as ever. Evidence enough that this trio needs to be experienced ‘live’.

The Frank Harrison Trio’s Live at The Verdict is available as a free download or, for just £4.99, as a CD (with that bonus track). Just follow this link.

 

Frank Harrison piano
Dave Whitford double bass
Enzo Zirilli drums

Artwork by Andrew Walton.

frankharrison.net
verdictjazz.co.uk

Linus Records – LRCD03 (2014)

‘Life to Everything’ – Phronesis

Life

HOW MIGHT ONE define ‘supergroup’? In some popular genres, it may well constitute questionable talent, shallow fame, social media infamy, gold discs, the trashing of hotel rooms or hanging around a decade too long in hideously bright designer lounge suits!

OK, so a tongue-in-cheek generalisation. But, in the case of Phronesis, that hugely popular Anglo-Scandinavian powerhouse of contemporary jazz, their success refreshingly reflects their consummate musicality, impassioned creativity, unequivocal scholarship and acceptance of the challenge to be different. Double bassist Jasper Høiby, pianist Ivo Neame and drummer Anton Eger feature prominently, and separately, in many of today’s exciting line-ups. But, make no mistake… when they slot together to record and perform as Phronesis, selling out venues from the UK to the USA and Canada, and to Australia, this trio becomes one of jazz’s supergroups.

With three studio albums to their tally (most recently, 2012’s Walking Dark) and already an acclaimed live album (Alive!, 2010), Danish-born Høiby is widely acknowledged as the band’s architect. But any thoughts of hierarchy end there, for the three have worked together in this remarkably balanced collective for almost a decade, committing themselves to the development of a wholly unified approach and honing what can only be recognised as complete mastery of their art.

In this new live release – recorded before enthusiastic in-the-round gatherings over three nights at The Cockpit during 2013’s EFG London Jazz Festival – the trio demonstrate more clearly than ever their established, democratic principle of writing and performing. And rather than interpreting previous studio album material, they bravely unleash a blistering, multi-layered assault and ‘batterie’ on the senses with nine astonishingly intricate new works, evenly sharing the compositional credits. Since its release a few weeks ago, I have been drawn deeper and still deeper into this mesmerising hour-long spectacular, increasingly rewarded by the staggering display of telepathy, invention and musicianship – and Phronesis clearly revel in and respond to the close, attentive appreciation of their audiences.

Visually and sonorously the trio’s backbone, Jasper Høiby ‘lights the touch paper’ with his pliant bass intro to Anton Eger’s Urban Control. The piece bursts into life with customary fervour, Ivo Neame’s piano glistening over Eger’s skittering percussion and Høiby’s unyielding exploration of the fingerboard. Phronesis always balance improvisation and tight mechanics so perfectly, blending expressive freedom with pin-sharp communication and structure, resulting in the most engaging of experiences. Phraternal finds a rare moment of contemplation, led by the composer’s piano; and, in contrast, the nine minutes of Høiby’s Behind Bars are simply breathtaking, building in intensity, yet so finely calculated – and Eger’s contribution (to see is to believe!) is frenetic almost beyond words.

Ever the searchingly-melodic pianist, Ivo Neame’s Song for Lost Nomads skips to his staccato left hand, Høiby and Eger tracking every phrase; and the smouldering Wings 2 the Mind from Høiby, with those now-characteristic Phronesis unison piano and bass phrases, bubbles away until anticipatory chimes coax this almost peerless drummer into another powerful display. No let-up in momentum, Nine Lives flies like the wind – and the writer’s double bass dexterity would be quite unbelievable had I not witnessed it many times before.

Neame takes a subtle step into the spotlight in his sprightly Deep Space Dance – a distinctive, creative pianistic style which is upheld beautifully by his colleagues. Two compositions from Anton Eger complete the album. Herne Hill shimmies infectiously (much to the delight of the audience), exhibiting such intelligence and shared understanding of dynamics and tempo. And, finally, Dr Black sums up the essence of this compelling trio, seemingly throwing at it every technique they possess, including a drum showcase which no doubt includes various kitchen items except the sink! – every time, a real thrill to listen to.

Life to Everything is likely to hit very high on the 2014 jazz seismograph, such is the calibre of these performances – and all from a set of live (and particularly superior) recordings. Released by Edition Records on 7 April, audio samples and purchasing options can be found here.

“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything” (Plato)


Jasper Høiby
double bass
Ivo Neame piano
Anton Eger drums

Photography: Dave Maric
Design: Darren Rumney

phronesis.com
editionrecords.com

Edition Records – EDN1050 (2014)

‘Live at the 2013 Cheltenham Jazz Festival’ – Troyk-estra

Troyk-estra

ONE OF THE MOST EXCITING and progressive trios to emerge in recent years has been Troyka, the members of which have also become key players in a host of other contemporary jazz and jazz/rock projects: Chris Montague (guitar, loops), Kit Downes (organ, keyboards) and Josh Blackmore (drums).

Their most recent album, ‘Moxxy’ (Edition Records, 2012), created a surge of interest for the band’s creative process of responding to an array of musical sources and influences to deliver their unique and heady mix of improvised jazz, rock, funk and electronics. Troyka’s live gigs are like no other, these three masters of their craft intuitively creating a mesmerising, sparky, sensory experience. So, with that same visionary spirit, how about augmenting the trio with the power and depth of a big band? Crazy? Well, what ensued was nothing short of a jazz sensation!

Montague, Downes and Blackmore assembled an 18-piece of brass, reeds, bass and vibes (personnel listed below, including familiar names such as Reuben Fowler, James Allsop and Mike Chillingworth) under the direction of Royal Academy of Music Head of Jazz, Nick Smart, who would bring a very different dimension to their music. To re-visit a sound originally built on a collective understanding between three, and widen its scope to a much larger ensemble, must have been something of a challenge – but the result, hearing it captured from the live setting of this year’s Cheltenham Jazz Festival (originally recorded for BBC Jazz On 3), is both exhilarating and enthralling (and difficult to categorise – though try to imagine a hybrid of Dave Holland, Matthew Herbert and Beats & Pieces plus Keith Emerson, Billy Cobham and Hendrix!).

Anagram antics are plentiful in the titles of some arrangements of existing pieces, so Dropsy changes to Dry Ops, Chaplin becomes Hip Clan, Zebra turns into Braze… but it’s the musical transformations, of course, that amaze, along with specially-written new pieces. Opener Dry Ops confirms straightaway the successful fusion: brass section able to echo the instantly-recognisable technique of Montague’s guitar/effects with similar spike and crackle, as well as combining with the reeds to fashion a tight NYC-sounding orchestration, whilst also allowing space for individual improvisation. The big band scoring of Gain Noon Soon sounds particularly demanding, but this ten-minute number really sparkles, Blackmore just astonishing with the complexity and rapidity of his drumming. Braze is such a fantastic development of the original trio piece, Downes impressing with signature firecracker organ/keyboards and Montague bristling on lead guitar, whilst incisive chordal stabs and mischievous vibes add peppy colour.

Misterioso Elegant Her‘s mournful, bluesy trumpet opening and slide guitar precede an increasingly urgent pace which eventually unfolds into a particularly BIG band sound and a great coda, Downes and Montague rocking (crank up the volume for a superb live feel!). Coley‘s funk-driven groove – led by the Troyka trio, bassist Louis Van Der Westhuizen and Ralph Wyld on vibes – is so gripping, featuring great organ, trombone and tenor soloing. The spacial Hip Clan – a ‘Moxxy’ favourite featuring Chris Montague’s atmospheric Floydian guitar lead – takes on a different timbre as sustained brass and reeds, with vibes, seemingly float it beyond the clouds. Finally, the cryptically-titled 80 Neon Births teases with big band swing, only to develop into an enveloping electronic haze against Blackmore’s percussive power before a blazing, full-on finale.

Those present at Cheltenham’s Parabola hailed Troyk-estra’s performance as “unforgettable”, “stupendous”, “jaw-droppingly amazing” – and, with this closely-recorded and remixed live account, we now have the opportunity to enjoy much of that magic for ourselves. Launching at London Jazz Festival on 23 November 2013 (Purcell Room, Southbank Centre at 3pm), with a general release date of 2 December 2013, this remarkable debut album is available from Impossible Ark at BandCamp. Prepare to be dazzled!


Chris Montague
guitar, loops  chrismontague.com
Kit Downes organ, keyboards  kitdownes.com
Josh Blackmore drums  joshuablackmore.com

Nick Smart conductor
Reuben Fowler trumpet
Alex Bonney trumpet
Noel Langley trumpet
Imogen Hancock trumpet
Kieran Stickle McLeod trombone
Patrick Hayes trombone
Tom Green trombone
Courtney Brown bass trombone
Mike Chillingworth alto saxophone
Nadim Teimoori alto saxophone
Sam Miles tenor saxophone
James Allsop tenor saxophone
Sam Rapley bass clarinet, baritone saxophone
Louis Van Der Westhuizen bass
Ralph Wyld vibes

Troyk-estra

Impossible Ark Records (2013)