Sat in a booth by the stage as the club filled, the house Steinway nudged more towards the centre specially for the performance, the double bass of Sam Vickery and then the drums of Luke Flowers set up over towards the curtain that masked the former street entrance, Nashville’s Kandace Springs was on the radar of the late Prince long before any of us would ever know.
The singer/pianist was returning to the club in front of a largely record biz and press crowd after an earlier warm up gig a few weeks ago before setting off to tour with Gregory Porter.
Just a day and a half after a show-stealing performance at the Jazz FM Awards in Bloomsbury she was here playing the Soho basement club ahead of the summertime release of Soul Eyes, the title track of her Blue Note Larry Klein-produced label debut, the Mal Waldron words and tune that she sang and played for the second time this week to London audiences, her effortlessly certain sunny blues-drenched mezzo charting a sound that has plenty of room for a big swathe of references stylistically, from an Alicia Keys marker in the curl of her accented beats working back to Roberta Flack and further to the days when jazz, blues and soul were a circle united. She shows they still are even if she is clearly destined for bigger stages and not just as a support.
Accompanying herself with a lightness of touch, a jazz sensibilty and more, those augmented chords and knowing progressions part of her cool, maybe playing like Nina Simone would a Billy Taylor tune, she opened with ‘Novocaine Heart’ and besides ‘Soul Eyes’, and with 1970s songwriter Judie Tzuke (‘Stay With Me Till Dawn’) sat in front of her at a little table, ‘Place to Hide’ an instantly lit-up Tzuke co-write with Lucie Silvas and Graham Kearns that seems tailor made for a wider mainstream pop non-jazz public, and which also crops up on the new album, featured.
Ewan MacColl’s ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,’ not on the album and the least effective of an otherwise excellent performance, the artificiality of these occasions notwithstanding, and Hoagy Carmichael jazz standard ‘The Nearness of You’ (no, it isn’t all just about your sweet conversation that she conjured best from Ned Washington’s words), a song that Springs told us was inspired by Norah Jones’ example on Come Away With Me and convincingly interpreted in Springs’ own contemporary way.
Springs has a natural looseness in her performance flow and plenty more you suspect that she kept under wraps necessarily with the drummer mainly limited to light brush strokes, the rhythmic lights turned down low in the intimate setting, and a way of caressing the soul, pop or jazz material that shows she’s all natural, her little ankle boots kicking down hard as her band swung and simply grooved to her.
Kandace Springs, above, ‘watch those eyes...’
- Last Updated: 03 May 2016
There's a vinyl countdown this week heralded by streaming and downloads on a brand new south London label, brainchild of records man Jon Griffiths, My Only Desire Records.
Released at the end of next week as an inexpensive 12” and on digital formats Still Happy is a 1974 Radio 2 Jazz Club session amounting to 30 minutes and three tracks written by the Barbadian British trumpeter Harry Beckett who died in 2010 and to whom Courtney Pine dedicated House of Legends. The title track has never been issued on any of Beckett’s records according to the label. (Versions of the other two tracks are on the slightly later Cadilllac album Joy Unlimited.)
One of the significant things about the release is that it has been remastered from original tapes. Any archive releases that aren’t – and record shops are awash with these – are usually not worth the candle.
Most of all the album, soaked in accessibly sunny yet inventive 70s free flowing jazz funk is coated in buttery, fluent expressiveness, the band in the moment, Beckett weaving in the slipstream of Art Farmer, improvisation moving beyond paraphrase to conjure space for development.
Sleeve notes are by The Mystery Lesson’s Daniel Spicer. Tracks are Bracelets of Sound, Still Happy, No Time for Hello, Beckett is on trumpet, and alternately, flugelhorn, and he is with tenorist/soprano player Alan Wakeman and Don Weller, Brian Miller on electric piano, Paul Hart on bass guitar, John Webb [who was on Flare Up back in 1970, Beckett’s first album] on drums, and Robin Jones, known for King Salsa since the 1980s, percussion.
- Last Updated: 03 May 2016
When Song: The Ballad Book appeared last year it was as tender as the night.
A clear step change for Courtney Pine, he picked up yet another MOBO jazz act nomination for his troubles and performed on the same stage when awards time came around joining soul singers Mica Paris and Omar among the line-up at the jazz, soul and gospel night that the organisers had put on in west London ahead of the main awards.
Completely different to 2012’s rousing Caribbean-themed House of Legends, Song had a little more in common with 2011’s Europa and Pine is still touring the album more than a year on from release with dates this spring including this Belfast appearance. Most of all the project showcases Courtney Pine’s bass clarinet-playing in duo with pianist Zoe Rahman.
Still the UK’s most famous jazz musician for all the right reasons – no not celebrity, he was on the moving BBC late-1990s ‘Perfect Day' video for instance (remember the wail of his soprano sax cutting like a rapier?) not at all because of the nod from the Queen who made him a CBE, one step short of a knighthood, most recently, but because of Pine’s sheer staggering musicianship and his huge influence on a generation of under represented new young BAME musicians to follow his jazz calling, like a young Jason Yarde who saw him in ambassadorial mode on TV, because the ex-Jazz Warriors star is above all else a charismatic figure like a lead singer who in his case just makes you want to like and love to play jazz whoever you are.
His sixteenth studio album, one of his most intimate in a long career at the top, recorded in his home town of London over two days of late-November 2014 and his first all-ballads affair, Song opened amid expansive chords with Sam Rivers’ ‘Beatrice’ followed by a warm version of Thad Jones’ ‘A Child is Born’ and the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ roughed up like a sea storm to begin with before the famous melody is relayed so very sensitively.
A 1990s soul direction an area Pine is also very much at home in takes hold later with the Brian McKnight song ‘One Last Cry’ performed quite straight, drawing out the melody with a minimum of artifice dependent on Pine’s extraordinary interpretative resource. ‘B Intro,’ a brief Pine solo improv, acts as a sonic sorbet before the rendition of the perennially popular ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,’ with the sentimental David Foster-penned 1980s hit for Chaka Khan from I Feel For You, ‘Through the Fire,’ another gem. Hearing what Pine can do with this weepie on a bass clarinet is remarkable; on tenor sax if he ever plays the song it could be a showstopper.
Pine’s own composition the title track ‘Song,’ (the melody hinting obliquely at ‘A Nightingale...’) and then the most meaningful choice of the whole collection, a version of Donny Hathaway’s truly inspirational 1970s anthem ‘Someday We’ll All Be Free,’ Pine showing his power and control, complete the album.
Zoe Rahman sounds like no other pianist on the UK jazz scene and she sparkles here mainly as an accompanist but also when she finds space of her own to explore.
Pine and Rahman play the Black Box on Hill Street, Belfast on 5 May, part of the CQAF
- Last Updated: 29 April 2016
Hear tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland and his band Twi-Life at the Cheltenham jazz festival this weekend. His new album Nihil Novi is released by Blue Note this month. The gig is on Saturday, click for details.
Strickland is sizzlingly good live. I caught him back in 2012 at the now long gone Charlie Wrights in Hoxton after the release of Triumph of the Heavy (Vol 1& 2). Known for his tenure in Dave Douglas’ Keystone band especially on the formidable outing Moonshine that night he was at the Pitfield Street jazz bar with the stamina to tackle mountainous runs and the subtlety to attribute character and emotion to their lines, the jaggedly yearning ‘Mudbone’ a definite highlight.
The band Strickland this weekend is leading includes singer Jean Baylor and Stanley Clarke drummer Charles Haynes out of East St Louis. Aged 37, originally from Miami, Strickland also used to play with Roy Haynes and as a leader made his mark on FSNT, the Catalan label that Robert Glasper (who guests on Nihil Novi) first surfaced on. Twi-Life already have a live album out on Marcus’ own label, the new one Nihil Novi, meaning “nothing new”, explained in a little detail in the video above, was produced by bassist Meshell Ndegeocello and stylistically spans J Dilla to Bartók with dashes of Afrobeat and bop fed in, according to the label, also significant, Strickland inspired too by DJ beat making and the work of producers like Madlib. SG
- Last Updated: 27 April 2016
If you wanted to create a list of the 10 most exciting new-ish jazz bands on the UK scene at the moment – oh Binker & Moses, Empirical, Snowpoet, Exodus, Malija, Nérija, Sons of Kemet, Polar Bear, Phronesis would all be there, as would Mammal Hands who return with Floa to be released on 25 May. Listen to Hourglass from the album above
The Norwich band surface this chilly late spring whip Smart as ever, stick with me, remaining on the roster of Matthew Halsall's Gondwana label, two years on from their excellent first statement of massive intent Animalia. Nick Smart (no not the Trogon trumpeter/academic) on piano, Jesse Barrett, drums and percussion, and Nick’s brother Jordan, saxophone, make up the band the style running the gamut of music from the minimalism of Steve Reich to the dance ecstasy of Cinematic Orchestra with dollops of world music and a sense of English pastoral melancholia all of their own thrown in for good measure. Above all they have band instinct, they finish their own musical sentences, look at each other in the eye, anticipate the direction of the music and run with it.
They’re touring in May... full details via the Mammal Hands site.
- Last Updated: 26 April 2016
June sees the release of Solo Gemini billed on Amazon as pianist Nikki Yeoh’s debut.
It is ages since I first heard Nikki Yeoh play when she was quite young, a member of Courtney Pine’s band, a long ago predecessor of Zoe Rahman’s. It was in unlikely surroundings, a long way from her home patch of the proud, so-called people’s republic of Islington. Instead it was in Stalin’s wedding gift to the ‘grateful Polish nation,’ Congress Hall in Warsaw back in the early-1990s. Nikki was an unknown then beyond musician circles and yet she stood out for her virtuosity and flair in the busy amped-up setting of Courtney’s amalgam of post-Coltranian jazz and reggae flavours.
Since then she has flickered on and off on the jazz scene radar and is often busy playing sessions with A list musicians and spending time with her family and above all as an eternally humble student of the music like all the best musicians. She ran a piano trio for years called Infinitum (also the name of the issuing label of her new album) her writing style inclining to suites and grand structures, Wayne Shorter-like at times, the drum/bass guitar playing Mondesir brothers Mark and Michael close musical associates for many years.
Yeoh paved the way for UK jazz millennial female leaders and soloists. Today high profile piano leaders like Rahman, Alcyona and Nikki Iles have long since emerged yet they are still all fairly rare sightings on the male dominated UK jazz scene.
The opening track on the new album Solo Gemini has a Piano Circus Transmission lineage dating back 15 years. Continuing to quote from Amazon, the only main source so far, there are “eight original tracks inspired by an eclectic mix of influences from Hermeto Pascoal to John Cage.”
Spanning 25 years Nikki herself is quoted: “I started composing aged five in the hallway at my nan’s council flat in 1970s Islington, sitting on A-Zs [they were the London maps published in stout books that everyone used to find their way around the metropolis before the advent of smartphones] that boosted the height of my piano stool so that I could reach the keys. The first significant piece I wrote was ‘Mutual Serenade’ at the age of 18, which was inspired by Brazilian maestro Hermeto Pascoal, after hanging out with him at Ronnie Scott’s.” Yeoh, shortly to turn 43 and herself a Gemini, last year was musical director of “chamber musical” The Etienne Sisters, further explains: “The art of story telling is an aural tradition and is prone to elaboration and improvisation each time the tale is told.”
Track titles are: Six As 1 [a Piano Circus link], Perfectidd, What Kind? This Kind, [title track] Solo Gemini, The Healer, Mutual Serenade [the Pascoal homage], Dance of the Two Small Bears and Elderflower & Ivy. Release date is 10 June. SG.
Solo Gemini album cover, top. Audience footage of a piano duet Yeoh performed with Chick Corea at the Barbican, above
- Last Updated: 25 April 2016
This year classic jazz singer Edel Meade, a regular in Irish jazz clubs such as Berts in Belfast, is in the Dublin Down with Jazz line-up, just announced, performing her Billie Holiday tribute.
Appearing too are Matt Jacobsen’s prog jazz pacesetters ReDiviDer, while the gorgeous sounds of Snowpoet, where literary influences, electronica, and cutting edge vocal improvisational styles collide in a uniquely sensitive way, and the great Irish saxophonist Richie Buckley – who the Sunday Independent described succinctly enough as a musician whose playing “manages to be simultaneously passionate and gentle, romantic and elegiac” – appears with his quintet.
Hitting Meeting House Square in early-June over the Irish spring bank holiday days of 4-5 June the organisers at IMC tie in centenary rising celebrations a little ingeniously with the birth of jazz itself, scrolling forward historically to embrace the festival’s name that mocks the bleak god-fearing 1930s in Ireland when jazz was repressed from pulpit to pew. SG
Snowpoet, above. Full line-up and tickets
- Last Updated: 22 April 2016
Soul-jazz vibes great and clubbers’ favourite Roy Ayers tops the bill at this year’s City of Derry Jazz and Big Band Festival.
Run by Derry City and Strabane Council, the Derry fest is one of the biggest jazz events in Ireland in terms of attendance and profile, and spans the May Bank Holiday weekend from Thursday 28 April-Monday 2 May, the global UNESCO-backed International Jazz Day falling during its run.
The festival embraces ticketed events at venues and also includes a lot of free-entry music that ups the general atmosphere and wider city involvement.
Other highlights this year include singer Liane Carroll (afternoon show) and guitarist Nigel Mooney both at Bennigans (on the Friday); a BBC Radio Ulster showcase at the Guildhall with Dana Masters (Saturday); Jean Toussaint with his Art Blakey Roots and Herbs project at the Playhouse (Saturday); and the Byron Wallen quintet at Bennigans (Sunday). Ayers appears at St Columb’s Hall also on the Sunday.
The masterclass programme features bassist John Goldsby of the WDR big band; ex-Maceo trombonist Dennis Rollins, who appeared with his Velocity trio at last year’s festival in one of the stand-out shows; and drummer Shaney Forbes of Empirical.
The festival website is: www.cityofderryjazzfestival.com
- Last Updated: 22 April 2016
Nominations for the 2016 Parliamentary Jazz Awards are:
Jazz venue of the year: Jazz Re:freshed at Mau Mau, London, Seven Jazz, Leeds, Watermill Jazz, Dorking
The awards are organised by the All Party Parliamentary Jazz Appreciation Group of MPs and peers, and will take place in the terrace pavilion of the House of Commons on Tuesday 10 May. Ian Shaw, top; Emila Mårtensson, above
- Last Updated: 20 April 2016
Only Wynton and Ornette became Pulitzer prize winners for music during their lifetimes... until now, with the news overnight that avant reedist/flautist bandleader/composer Henry Threadgill has won the award, one of America’s greatest musical accolades, to join them.
Usually the prize judges select classical winners and certainly there is an art music pure avant compositional aspect to all of Threadgill’s deeply unconventional work yet it is completely steeped in improvisation and avant garde jazz. The Chicago composer, who is 72, won for last year’s In for a Penny, In for a Pound. Threadgill is influential on avant jazz musicians the world over. In Scotland for instance he is a big influence on drummer/bandleader Tom Bancroft. Threadgilll emerged via the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in the 1960s. I’ve only seen Threadgill play live once with his Zooid ensemble, a quite remarkable concert at the London Jazz Festival back in 2011.
Vintage Threadgill from the 1970s, above
The organisers refer to Threadgill’s winning compositions released by the Pi label as a “highly original work in which notated music and improvisation mesh in a sonic tapestry that seems the very expression of modern American life.” SG
- Last Updated: 19 April 2016