‘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)

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‘Cielito Lindo’ – Sunna Gunnlaugs

Sunna

CARRIED ON A WARM, NORTHERLY BREEZE, Sunna Gunnlaugs’ previous trio release Distilled (2013) brought treasures aplenty from the pianist/composer’s native Iceland – a finely-crafted display of elegance, playfulness and imaginative free improvisation. Now, new album Cielito Lindo expands on those themes to deliver an hour-plus of 14 more engaging originals and arrangements, with bassist Þorgrímur (Toggi) Jónsson and drummer Scott McLemore.

What particularly appeals about the pianistic character of Sunna Gunnlaugs is her blend of influences which allude to Bill Evans’ and Bobo Stenson’s lyricism, yet also seem to incorporate the bright, tuneful openness of, say, Oscar Peterson and the kind of sparky, inquiring edge associated with Esbjörn Svensson. Title track Cielito Lindo has it all – opening, percussive rustlings and under-the-lid piano string shimmers unveiling Quirino Mendoza y Cortés’ charming, lilting Mexican melody upon which Gunnlaugs improvises with customary authority. Scott Lemore’s Compassion reveals the trio’s steady, delicate interaction with almost Bachian overtones; and the subtle bossa of the pianist’s own Endastopp becomes increasingly energized as it crackles to hard-edged drums and double bass.

The trio’s freely improvised ‘spin cycle’ thread continues, briefly punctuating the lengthier tracks with short settings Spin 8, 9 and 11 (maybe 10 is in the next load!) – and Dry Cycle communicates urgency through its high, ostinato piano chords, syncopated riff and memorable melody, followed by flamboyant improvisation. Seemingly obvious choice, Gershwin’s Summertime, is however reinterpreted beautifully, as fleeting snatches of the familiar strains are glimpsed through the mystery of skittering bass and drums; whilst amiable Workaround suggests e.s.t.’s blues-implied impudence.

Jónsson’s Vetrarstef possesses the yearning eloquence of a classic theme tune, its wintry folksiness occasionally redolent of acoustic Mike Oldfield; and Gunnlaugs’ Icelandic Blues snaps and crunches its way through seven glorious minutes which brim with smile-raising chromatic jollity, jaunty piano extemporisation and a thunderously percussive conclusion – a tour de force! Contrasting Tiltekt is exquisitely homely, its chiming melodies afforded the space to resonate; and All Agaze (another of McLemore’s gems) twists and turns unpredictably – ebullient grooving, yet with darker, Gustavsen-like moments. And to close… well, the songwriting of Tom Waits is frequently a source of jazz inspiration, and his Johnsburg, Illinois receives a faithful, picturesque outing from the trio, highlighting Waits’ penchant for a good melody.

Once again, Gunnlaugs and her trio achieve their discerning balance of tuneful accessibility, compositional distinctiveness and the constantly-undulating landscape of delicacy and high energy. A remarkable achievement – and a very fine album.

Released on Sunny Sky Records on 14 August 2015, Cielito Lindo is available at Bandcamp.

 

Sunna Gunnlaugs piano
Þorgrímur Jónsson double bass
Scott McLemore drums

sunnagunnlaugs.com

Sunny Sky Records – 733 (2015)

‘Kind of Cool’ – Wolfgang Haffner

Layout 1

IT WOULD BE EASY, on a first hearing, to pass off Wolfgang Haffner’s Kind of Cool as bog-standard ‘elevator music’, given his assured, easy-going approach to this stream of jazz favourites. But offering so much more than that, he presents a thread of accessible Summer’s afternoon ‘cool’ in immaculate, straight-ahead renditions including So What, Summertime, and My Funny Valentine.

As a jazz drummer, composer, producer and bandleader, Haffner has for many years been highly regarded throughout his native Germany and beyond – indeed, a weighty back catalogue of recorded and live collaborations (including Pat Metheny, Michael Brecker, John Abercrombie, Michael Wollny) tell their own story. Recalling his early introduction to jazz, it was the LPs of Dave Brubeck, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and the Modern Jazz Quartet that helped Haffner forge his musical identity; and here, he approaches familiar ‘greats’ with a fresh elegance, along with a trio of his own compositions which neatly dovetail into the prevailing chilled groove. A sextet album with guests, the main line-up boasts extraordinary collective experience: Christopher Dell (vibes), Jan Lundgren (piano), Dan Berglund (bass), Dusko Goykovich (trumpet) and Jukka Perko (alto sax), plus Haffner at the kit.

So a few pointers: Haffner’s gently shuffling Hippie, with Jukka Perko’s mellow alto conjuring thoughts of Paul Desmond’s (Brubeck’s) signature sound, leads to a buoyant, vibes-embellished interpretation of Miles Davis’ So What. The only vocal track finds soulful Max Mutzke (in an impressive first take) easing into Billy Eckstein’s Piano Man, with marvellously measured blues piano from guest Frank Chastenier; and the timeless appeal of Autumn Leaves is longingly windswept by Dusko Goykovich’s muted trumpet. Tantricity (from Haffner’s pen) meanders abstractly before a welcome gear change in Summertime – Gershwin’s spiritual reinvented as a catchy, laid-back swing.

Rodgers & Hart’s My Fully Valentine maintains its slow, haunting mystery thanks to Perko’s silky alto; and the cheeky unison horn demeanour of Nat Adderley’s One For Daddy O swaggers to the velvety trombone of guest Nils Landgren. With reminiscences of Chet Baker’s smooth vocal delivery, I Fall In Love Too Easily smoulders to Goykovitch’s soft trumpet and Jan Lundgren’s pianistic grace. John Lewis’s Django takes a new twist away from MJQ familiarity, its inquiring sax melody entering the realm of TV drama theme; and Haffner’s Remembrance is a fitting bookend, every bit as appealing as its classic companions.

A recording occasionally veering close to soporific in places, the similar key-change oscillations of the first two programmed tracks didn’t initially help to grab the attention (though perhaps Wolfgang would be quite happy with the Miles comparison!). But as the album proceeds, there’s the realisation of ordered clarity and sophistication which becomes increasingly satisfying. Maybe not literally “my favourite work of art”… but, having already received many enjoyable plays, it will no doubt be pressed into action as the long (hopefully warm and sunny) days of Summer approach.

Released on 23 February 2015, further information, audio clips and purchasing can be found at ACT Music.

 

Wolfgang Haffner drums
Christopher Dell vibraphone
Jan Lundgren piano
Dan Berglund bass
Dusko Goykovich trumpet
Jukka Perko alto saxophone
with
Max Mutzke vocals
Frank Chastenier piano
Christian von Kaphengst bass
Nils Landgren trombone

wolfganghaffner.com

ACT Music  – ACT 9576-2 (2015)

‘Porgy & Bess’ – Fini Bearman

Porgy&Bess

GEORGE GERSHWIN’S 1930s American folk opera, Porgy & Bess – a tale of against-all-odds love set against a backdrop of prostitution and drug addiction – is known to many for its popular songs such as Summertime, It Ain’t Necessarily So and I Loves You Porgy.

In 1959, iconic jazz trumpeter Miles Davis and renowned bandleader Gil Evans together issued a recording, on Columbia, of their own interpretations of songs from the opera, which became one of the most enduringly favoured Davis albums from what has become a considerable discography. The inherent blues/jazz feel of the original was what particularly drew them to their new nine-piece band explorations (not just ‘jazz treatments’), leading Evans to divulge, “The three of us, it seems to me, collaborated in the album.”

Some fifty-odd years later, it’s that landmark Davis/Evans recording which has provided the inspiration for London-based singer, songwriter and composer Fini Bearman to present this new album of eight numbers/impressions from the original score, backed by an impressively adaptable line-up: Ross Stanley (Hammond, Wurlitzer), Matt Calvert (guitars, plus piano), Jon Cox (double bass) and John Blease (drums, percussion). All arrangements are by Bearman, Calvert and Blease and are transformatively compelling.

For example, in Bearman’s hands, Davis’ New Orleans-style funeral march interlude of Gone, Gone, Gone breaks into a strong-beat Sixties single, courtesy of Ross Stanley’s evocative Augeresque organ playing and Matt Calvert’s lively, tremulant guitar (interesting to consider Miles’ recording was made on the cusp of a decade that was to be characterised by this sound). Fini Bearman’s voice is strong, soulful and, if emulating this period, utterly convincing. The despair of My Man’s Gone Now, as heard in Gershwin’s vocalised original (though more smoothly swinging in Davis’ world) is beautifully weighted in its solid, sustained, major/minor bluesyness; and, in stark contrast, the plainly optimistic (usually baritone-sung) I Got Plenty of Nuthin’ skips in countrified abandon, Bearman getting into its cheeky, resigned character.

Porgy, I’m Your Woman Now is touchingly delicate, the spacial arpeggioed guitar arrangement here illuminating the beauty, and even modernity, of Gershwin’s writing; and the richness and feeling in Fini Bearman’s delivery carries the song so well. Lively blues to the fore, It Ain’t Necessarily So rings to the crashing, gritty precision of Calvert’s guitar and Stanley’s truly authentic chordal and soloing organ tone – sensational stuff from the whole quintet. I Loves You Porgy, a well-covered classic (and here, as in Miles’ version, a first take) is winsomely engaging – Bearman feels the emotion of the lyric, and echoic guitar and brittle percussion provide a certain weightlessness, whilst Ross Stanley’s bright melodic tone is quite magical.

The chirpy beat of Davis’ There’s A Boat That’s Leavin’ Soon is delightfully remodelled as an easy-going groove, held up well by bassist Jon Cox and drummer John Blease, which Bearman clearly revels in; it all sounds remarkably fresh, shimmering to guitar and Rhodes soloing. And to close, Prayer – a freely-improvised, less obvious impression of Summertime – perhaps suggests the misty poignancy of the previous number as it ebbs and washes to vocal and instrumental overlays, idealistically heading out to New York.

David Ewen, Gershwin’s first biographer, reputedly stated of the man and this opera that he “never quite ceased to wonder at the miracle that he had been its composer. He never stopped loving each and every bar, never wavered in the conviction that he had produced a work of art.” Its longevity, although due in part to the popularity of the mainstream ‘hits’, is testament to that belief – and thanks to the vision of artists including Miles Davis, and now Fini Bearman, his work can continue to be appreciated through contemporary interpretations. And that, happily, is one of the wonders of a living, breathing, creative genre such as jazz.

Released on the ‘F-IRE presents’ label on 28 October 2014, Porgy & Bess is available from ProperMusic and usual outlets.

 

Fini Bearman voice
Ross Stanley Hammond organ, Wurlitzer
Matt Calvert guitars, piano
Jon Cox double bass
John Blease drums, percussion

(original credits: music by George Gershwin; libretto by DuBose Heyward; lyrics by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin)

finibearman.com
f-ire.com

F-IRE presents – F-IRECD 76 (2014)