REVIEW: ‘Second Lives’ – Graham Costello’s STRATA

“SONICALLY, this is a fully analogue record – a computer hasn’t touched it. You hear full takes, and practically zero overdubs.”

Since Strata, his debut release of 2017, Glaswegian drummer/composer Graham Costello (a first-class graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) has been honing his craft; in particular, developing this intensive, progressive band with tenor saxophonist Harry Weir, trombonist Liam Shortall, pianist Fergus McCreadie, guitarist Joe Williamson and electric bassist Mark Hendry. That first, self-released step into a polyrhythmic jazz/rock/minimalist environment, followed by 2019’s Obelisk, has clearly spurred this sextet on to greater heights. The drummer’s ‘live in studio’ approach to capturing it all in full flight (quoted above and qualified by “You hear everything – squeaks, room sounds, pedal clicks”) perhaps bears the most immediate comparison with the ‘real-time process music’ of Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin, though with more of a funk/soul vibe.

Themes of evolution, heritage, stoicism and inner challenge (look deeper into that cover ‘icon’) permeate these eleven compositions/improvisations, with discoveries about Costello’s extended, Burmese-Indian family especially inspiring the creativity. Fronted by richly powerful tenor sax and trombone, though clearly driven by the leader’s fervent, metrical energy, STRATA as a unit are tight, uncompromising and dynamic – something initially belied by the ambient-piano awakening of အစ (translated from Burmese as ‘beginning’). Recurring motifs strongly inform their overriding energy, exemplified by Eudaimonia which thrives on a blistering wall of approaching/receding horns and pyrotechnic percussion, and continued in torrid, sax-squealing Legion (Costello’s flamboyance at the kit, here, is on another level).

Certainly there are oases of calm, as in Satie-suggested Iris led by McCreadie’s restrained, echoic piano; or Williamson’s notable pitch-bent guitar that paints an unsettling, industrial landscape in Snowbird; and Circularity’s repose summons the slowly-shifting figures of John Ellis and The Cinematic Orchestra. But STRATA’s trademark thunder is unquestionably ‘main feature’, the rasping horns and full-band saturation of The Colossus crescendoing and thrashing to fever pitch, while the brisk momentum of bass-babbling Impetu is carried by relentless piano figures, its boldness momentarily side-stepping into calypso. The pulsating, upward trajectory of Arrowhead creates an exciting, almost menacing three minutes (a double or triple extension to its development can be imagined), closely followed by the John Adams-reminiscent propulsion of Ataraxia – crashing, riffing… and anything but tranquil! To close, the band’s ruminative title track seemingly connects with the earlier-mentioned themes, its cyclical piano and meditational effects perhaps impressing continuity of ‘family’.

Graham Costello’s STRATA have, so far, furrowed their particular groove with panache, character and honesty; and that foundational principle of artistic realism delivers a ‘wow factor’ in this album which will undoubtedly translate explosively into eventual live performance. Advancing the band’s compositional style and sound may be their next challenge – but they’ll be up for it!

Co-produced and engineered by the legendary Hugh Padgham, Second Lives is released on 7 May 2021 and available as CD, vinyl and digital download at Bandcamp.

 

Graham Costello drums, composition
Harry Weir tenor saxophone
Liam Shortall trombone
Fergus McCreadie piano
Joe Williamson guitar
Mark Hendry electric bass

Cover image by Bernadette Kellermann and Graham Costello

Videos: Eudaimonia, Legion, Circularity, Impetu, Live in concert (2018)

grahamcostello.com
gcstrata.net

Gearbox Records – GB1566CD (2021)

REVIEW: ‘Cwmwl Tystion / Witness’ – Cwmwl Tystion / Witness

THE IDENTITY and landscape of Wales is steeped in historical, political and cultural significance, something which composer and trumpeter Tomos Williams seeks to explore and interpret through his experimental project Cwmwl Tystion (‘Witness’ or, literally, ‘Cloud of Witnesses’, quoted from 20th century poet Waldo Williams’ ‘What is Man?’).

Cardiff-based Tomos Williams also leads folk/jazz outfit Burum and ‘Indo-Welsh’ band Khamira; but this more exploratory, frequently free-jazz suite stems from his desire to “create a piece that both celebrated and questioned the idea of Welshness and referenced notable events in Welsh history.” The democratically-spirited sextet – with Francesca Simmons (violin, saw), Rhodri Davies (harp, electronics), Huw V Williams (bass) and Mark O’Connor (drums) – also features acclaimed pianist Huw Warren; and for this live recording, captured both in Swansea and London, the performances were accompanied by the animated visuals of Simon Proffitt.

Seven movements indeed identify specific inspirations from Williams’ homeland, opening with a suitably expansive depiction of Mynyddoedd Cymru (Mountains of Wales). From rugged Snowdonia in the north to the vast, southerly sprawl of the Brecon Beacons, the majesty of Wales’ geographical wonders is illustrated through austere, ascending motifs and fierce, whirling, climatic expressions. Across more than twenty minutes, its episodic breadth and saturation is initially whelming – yet the relentless progression can also be breathtaking, its many textures including Rhodri Davies’ Jimmy Page-like electronically-manipulated harp. Welsh folk tune Glyn Tawe is beautifully interpreted by violin and piano – a plaintive melody, heard on the wind, that brings to mind Sir Edward Elgar’s useful, distant-song encounter in Llangranog – but it also seems to have a troubled soul (Elgar again!), Francesca Simmons’ ‘flattened’ string improvisations so gorgeously bittersweet.

The fascinating and well-documented connection of popular African-American baritone Paul Robeson with Welsh mining communities is remembered in Paul Robeson ac Eisteddfod y Glowyr 1957 (Paul Robeson and the Miners’ Eisteddfod 1957). This brashly jazz-swinging commemoration vigorously flashes with harp and piano, and the effect of a classic horn section from the duality of trumpet and violin is quite something. The anger of Llyfrau Gleision 1847 (the disparaging 19th century enquiry into the state of education in Wales) is communicated through urgent rhythms, crashing ‘guitar’, impassioned trumpet improv and the curious waver of a saw, while Huw Warren‘s unbridled mastery (both inside and outside the piano frame) is just glorious.

Quoting a triad of Welsh folk songs, the restless angst of Pa Beth yw Cenedl? (What is a Nation?) develops apace, Warren’s intense soloing white-hot against the throng of thrashing percussion and tumultuous bass. Tryweryn 1965 recalls the controversial flooding of valley village Capel Celyn to create a reservoir for Liverpool’s water supply, sparking huge local and political unrest, now belied by its quiet beauty. Williams illustrates these contrasts with sparky, disoriented figures and an elegant though wistful violin tune. Closing Pa Beth yw Dyn? (What is Man?) – the source of the project’s title – transforms discordancy into a verdant, straightahead-jazz celebration of Cymru, dominated by Huw Warren’s elegant pianism.

Peeling back the layers of this performance – excellently recorded, live – and either learning of or reacquainting oneself with the extraordinary history and breathtaking landscape of this nation, the creativity of Tomos Williams and his sextet becomes increasingly meaningful. A truly effective and important melding of message and music.

Released on 5 March 2021, Cwmwl Tystion / Witness is available from tycerddshop.com, iTunes and Amazon.

Tomos Williams trumpet, compositions
Francesca Simmons violin, saw
Rhodri Davies harp, electronics
Huw Warren piano
Huw V Williams bass
Mark O’Connor drums
with
Simon Proffitt live visuals

Videos: Mynyddoedd Cymru and Tryweryn 1965

Introductory YouTube video
Tomos Williams at khamira.net
tycerdd.org

Tŷ Cerdd Records – TCR029 (2021)

REVIEW: ‘The New Cool’ – David Helbock

DAVID HELBOCK is clearly a guy who is difficult to pigeonhole, his Random Control Trio project, for example, often involving a complex array of instruments on stage to present his own music and almost comedic reinterpretations at the edge of unpredictability.

Read my full review at LondonJazz News…

Released on 26 March 2021 and available in CD and vinyl formats at ACT Music.

 

David Helbock piano
Sebastian Studnitzky trumpet
Arne Jansen guitar

Cover art: Violet Blue Monk – Ugo Rondinone, painted cast bronze, 2020

davidhelbock.com

ACT Music – 9927-2 (2021)

REVIEW: ‘Quiet Is The Star’ – Georgia Mancio & Alan Broadbent

HAVE YOU EVER peered into the midnight-blue yonder to pick out its brightest astral personalities, and then watched in awe as endless constellations begin to unfold before your eyes? A metaphor, perhaps, for the magical, prolific songwriting and performing collaboration of vocalist/lyricist Georgia Mancio and pianist/composer Alan Broadbent, revealing still more wonder in new release Quiet Is The Star.

Following a chanced-upon opportunity in 2013 to perform together as a duo, Mancio and Broadbent began to build a collection of co-written material, some of which the double Grammy award-winning pianist had penned, many years ago, as wordless instrumental pieces waiting for wings. All was revealed in 2017’s glorious Songbook – its quartet line-up completed by double bassist Oli Hayhurst and drummer Dave Ohm – and this successful pairing of authoritative musicianship and heartfelt poetry kindled an ongoing creative partnership which has led to a current total of 33 songs in the tradition of timeless jazz standards (all newly published in a desirable lead-sheet songbook*).

The nine numbers of Quiet Is The Star find the two artists in their pure, alchemic environment of pianist and vocalist, exposing the structure, detail and elegance of sensitively-crafted songs whose themes reflect love, loss, family, friendship and empathy. Georgia Mancio’s ability to complement Alan Broadbent’s music with the perfect lyric, and then deliver it either at breathtaking speed or with lush, romantic eloquence, never wanes. This selection focuses largely on the latter, with a fine, balladic style redolent of, say, Rodgers and Hart or Johnny Mercer.

Such comparison can be heard in the sunshiny yet lost-love resignation of I Can See You Passing By (“No need to say hello when it’s goodbye”) or the fond, sisterly recollections breezily portrayed in All My Life (“I think of that child, all her thoughts running wild with exhilaration … you will listen to me, take my side, let me see all the things that I still can be”). Let Me Whisper To Your Heart continues the close-family theme with its emotive but sweet legacy of beautiful images (“Let me welcome each sunrise … and find you”), while elegant Tell The River expresses a deep desire for justice and freedom (“Tell my children to grow strong and healthy … tell them you will find me free”).

An early Alan Broadbent tune, bluesily ornamented, conveys When You’re Gone From Me’s expression of hope in adversity through an autumnal sense of longing (russet shades of Michel Legrand), with poignant, shadowy Night After Night sharing that search for positivity; and in If I Think Of You, Georgia Mancio’s heartfelt phrases (“Every road is clear and true, if I think of you”) perfectly adorn its touchingly warm piano melodies and harmonies. Time after time, these are songs whose joint mastery suggests they have already become established in a much-loved stage show or movie musical, an impression heard again within the graceful, reassuring glow of If My Heart Should Love Again. To close, Quiet Is The Star’s twinkling lap displays a supremely exquisite and quietly affecting marriage of words and music: “I see the sky, I watch the birds go by. They seem to tell us: we too can find which way to follow, which ties to bind” – encouragement indeed that, amidst life’s tribulations, all will be well.

The particular character, intonation and accuracy of Georgia Mancio’s voice makes it one of the most compelling I’ve known, infusing and shaping every phrase with honesty and emotion; and her artistic alliance with Alan Broadbent grows ever stronger. Look into this album’s glinting treasures. Reflected there, especially in these days, is beauty to hold dear.

Quiet Is The Star is released on 27 March 2021 and available in CD and digital formats at Bandcamp and Georgia Mancio’s website.

*The Songs of Georgia Mancio & Alan Broadbent songbook is published on 27 March 2021 and available from Georgia Mancio’s website.

 

Georgia Mancio voice, lyrics
Alan Broadbent piano, music

Illustration by Simon Manfield

georgiamancio.com
alanbroadbent.com

Roomspin Records – 2020 (2021)

REVIEW: ‘Entendre’ – Nik Bärtsch

WITH THAT INVITATION to simply ‘hear’, Swiss pianist Nik Bärtsch releases solo album Entendre – an intimate performance that bears a particular attraction.

Over the last fifteen years, the predominant outlet for Bärtsch’s distinctive, cyclical music has been his Ronin project – an ensemble with a core of piano, bass clarinet/alto saxophone, bass, drums and percussion that interprets his signature shifting metres, phrases and grooves, each composition identified only as a numeric ‘Modul’. The crafting of what can sometimes deceptively appear as digital processes, but are in fact acoustic, physical manifestations of Bärtsch’s writing, have long been a fascination through ECM albums such as Stoa (2006), Llyrìa (2010) and Awase (2018) – and this ‘minimalist’ approach can find a comparison with the music of Terry Riley or even La Monte Young.

For Entendre, recorded in the spacious surroundings of the Auditorio Stelio Molo, Lugano, Bärtsch sits alone with a Steinway grand, laying bare the wireframes and stratifications of his polymetric ‘ritual groove music’ (described more as templates, rather than prescribed compositions). At face value, it’s difficult to imagine how the complexity and fullness of the Ronin sound world can be presented this way; might it be just a pale reflection? As these absorbing fifty minutes or so prove, honed after Bärtsch’s 2017 solo piano tour experiences in Teheran, Cairo, Alexandria, Kolkata and Delhi, certainly not.

The pianist opens with a single, syncopated note, from which the widening mesmerism of Modul 58_12 unfurls, combining themes from the Awase and Continuum releases. Bärtsch’s deftness in maintaining and expanding on a bubbling, minor-key motif is immediately apparent, while complementing or combining with pealing and pirouetting melodies, adding depth through sustained string shimmers. The momentum is infectious, characteristically repetitive, while never lacking colour or contrasting oases of invention. There are muted hints of the blues in searching Modul 55, the piano’s ‘prepared’ chord strikes and tremors awakening these eight minutes with chromatic, Bartokian/Debussyian mystery; and Bärtsch’s metrical discipline is fascinating, both in the sparser passages and the heavier, internally-effected episodes.

Gradually-shifting layers in Modul 26’s delicate yet chattering dance (reminiscent of Steve Reich’s ‘Different Trains’) climb towards the light – and, at some fourteen minutes’ duration, how Bärtsch holds together the framework of its increasingly busy saturation is quite extraordinary before percussively descending the keyboard to its conclusion. A suggestion of symphonic Glass is palpable in the sinister, rhythmically inertial merry-go-round of Modul 13 as tintinnabular discords intersperse its hypnotic progression; and reinterpreted from 2016’s Continuum, the harmonic glow from Bärtsch’s impetuous, hard-hitting technique leads the way into Modul 5’s ferocious gallop. To close, Déjà-vu, Vienna (modelled on the live album’s Modul 42) winds down with the tolling reverence of Arvo Pärt, albeit with this pianist‘s inner scrapes and dampened bass motifs.

In Ronin’s output, there’s energy, dialogue and an amalgamation of individual creativity (which prompted my return to their back catalogue). Bärtsch’s singular focus at the piano is similarly engaging, for different reasons, while still communicating exhilaration, pace, intensity and serenity. Remarkably, everything heard is created with precision and minus post-production embellishment or multi-tracking, offering an immersive and deeply rewarding personal connection with each listener.

Released in the UK (more than once delayed by Brexit issues) on 2 April 2021 and available from ECM Records and Proper Music.

 

Nik Bärtsch piano

nikbaertsch.com

ECM Records – ECM 2703 (2021)

REVIEW: ‘Where Will The River Flow’ – Matt Carmichael

THE OPENNESS and beauty of the west Central Lowlands of Scotland (Yon wandering rill that marks the hill, And glances o’er the brae*) evoked in the cover art to tenor saxophonist Matt Carmichael’s Where Will The River Flow hints at the contemporary expressions of jazz and Scots folk heritage found in this vitalising debut album.

From Dunbartonshire, and soon to graduate from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, 21-year-old Carmichael began playing at around the age of 11. A Peter Whittingham Development Award in 2019 recognised the potential that had earlier been seen by saxophonist Tommy Smith (“better than I was at that age”) who invited him to join his youth jazz orchestra. More recently, he also impressed as a finalist in 2020’s BBC Young Jazz Musician awards, playing his own compositions which included numbers from this album.

Like so many Scottish composers and players before him, the beauty of Carmichael’s homeland strongly informs these nine tracks which are melodically fresh, yet can also erupt with vivacity and technical flair. Their folksy footing means that, while these originals don’t head into the rugged terrain of more exploratory, avant garde jazz, they can most certainly jig with an infectious joie de vivre – and that’s due in equal part to the ebullience of his quartet colleagues, pianist Fergus McCreadie, double bassist Ali Watson and drummer Tom Potter.

The Spey is perhaps the most boisterous example of that – a breathlessly rapid reel reflecting ‘the fastest river in Scotland’, which nevertheless provides space for McCreadie’s improvisatory vigour (becoming his signature, as heard in recent release Cairn). It also demonstrates Carmichael’s confidence in writing a ruthlessly difficult main figure to share with the pianist (eventually) on the bandstand! Another river depiction, Firth – specifically, the Moray Firth – teems and tumbles over itself to Tom Potter’s thrashing percussion as it heads over to the North Sea. The title track, too, is an eleven-minute hike that climaxes in gushing, torrential grandeur – an indicator of the saxophonist’s unbounded optimism, amidst current artistic ‘turbulence’, in the early stages of what promises to be a fulfilling career.

Just as warming are Carmichael’s more mellow excursions into the great outdoors of his childhood. Cononbridge (near Inverness) ambles to the homey, rhythmic tread of piano, bass and drums; and its softly whirling tenor melody possesses ‘sig tune’ appeal, while also joyfully scaling improvisational heights. Looking north-east from the summit, Carmichael recalls his time studying in Oslo, and his watery inspiration taken from there – Sognnsvann – is a beautifully lilting lakeside theme imaginable as a Trio Mediaeval interpretation. Contrasting pibroch-styled Interlude, under greying skies, swoons to plaintive tenor over double bass drone, its icy grip relinquished to Hopeful Morning which skips with memorable, almost Spyro Gyra-like radio appeal.

Dedication Dear Grandma seems to draw from its composer a sense of gratitude and ‘place’ in a tranquil, meandering ballad; and the aurora of closing improvisation Valley signals the sun to gradually arc into full brilliance as the quartet thunders in rock-solid celebration.

Matt Carmichael’s musicality already displays striking maturity and awareness, with a compositional vocabulary that suggests much for future projects. Right now, Where Will The River Flow is likely to put a spring in your step!

Released on 12 March 2021 and available in CD, vinyl and digital formats at Bandcamp.

 

Matt Carmichael tenor saxophone
Fergus McCreadie piano
Ali Watson double bass
Tom Potter drums

Album art by Joanne Carmichael

*quoted from An Ode to Spring – Robert (Rabbie) Burns

mattcarmichaelmusic.com

Porthole Music – PM01 (2021)