Free Souls

Late to this particular party it was only Rituals that first registered on my radar, Italian guitarist/DJ/producer Nicola Conte’s sassy 2008 album that featured a then on-the-rise José James the same year The Dreamer came out. James is here among a bunch of singers performing in his case ‘Goddess of the Sea’ Conte’s own song but he can’t rest on his laurels when Marvin Parks is around particularly on ‘If I Should Lose You’ done as a fast samba with a fine solo from Italian alto-sax great Rosario Giuliani. But it’s former BritSchool student Bridgette Amofah, currently making waves in the States with drum’n’bass-dubstep hitmakers Rudimental, who steals the show with her laidback sound on the sun-drenched title track and a cover of Bobbie Gentry’s ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ the picks. Conte’s combo here has 60s retro Blue Note-type horns from Magnus Lindgren and Francesco Lento among the horn section (the drummer on seven of the tracks is Five Corners Quintet’s very own Buhainia Teppo “Teddy Rok” Mäkynen). Starry guests include Greg Osby on Ahmad Jamal’s ‘Ahmad’s Blues’ a song that US/Haitian singer Melanie Charles (known for her backing vocals with Laura Izibor and her septet The Journey) almost makes her own. She’s definitely “so urban her suburban friends don’t know her bag of blues” to borrow from the song. So, tasteful sophisticated clubby soul-jazz for sure, perhaps a little too fluffy in places but with a wealth of singers courtesy of the talented Mr Conte on these sessions recorded in the studio in the Italian city of Bari from 2006-11, the vocals and overdubs added just in the winter. SG

Bassist in the Pat Metheny Quartet alongside the guitar great, pianist Gwilym Simcock and Birdman drummer composer Antonio Sánchez, Linda (May Han) Oh’s latest studio album is to be released in mid-April on Biophilia Records. Oh, as the Malaysian-born Australian was known when she burst on the scene, now also including her birth name in her full nomenclature, initially championed by Dave Douglas is I suppose alongside Esperanza Spalding, among the most high profile female jazz bassists probably anywhere on the international club and festival jazz scene. But her style and artistic persona is of course different. Spalding, certainly in a funk rockier space at the moment and moving more electric while Oh prefers acoustic primarily. Both players certainly came out of modern mainstream straightahead jazz situations, in Spalding’s case with Joe Lovano who of course Douglas has worked with a lot. And Oh has played with both the trumpeter and Blue Note label veteran tenorist in their popular Soundprints outfit who put out for instance a high profile Live at Monterey record not so very long ago and regularly tour to the UK. Walk Against Wind features the core quartet of Kneebody saxophonist Ben Wendel, guitarist Matthew Stevens, who was coincidentally with Spalding on Emily’s D+Evolution, and the highly effective drummer Justin Brown last heard by marlbank on brilliant form performing with Ambrose Akinmusire and who reminds me of the power and glory of Dennis Chambers or Billy Cobham. The net result of the Oh concept on these tracks is some remarkably gutsy highly propulsive pulse-heavy yet airy very rhythmic freed up post-bop which is full of engrossing melodic twists and turns and where intersecting rhythms and different points of entry create driving patterns and somehow rational resolutions. Listen to excerpts, above

What ‘nothing happened in a quiet year for jazz’ really means is that quite a lot of random activity took place but none of it connected in quite the same unifying happenstance narrative as it has ignited in certain years.

Think about the Kind of Blue/Shape of Jazz to Come/Time Out/Mingus Ah Um year of 1959, say. That was a huge year for US globally-significant jazz. Or, for that matter, reflect on 1968, the Brötz in his shattering pomp. A year characterised by mass protest in Europe and the US.

There were, of course, plenty of very worthwhile albums and gigs in 2016. Yet it was hardly a vintage year. Still, there was significant movement in the infrastructure of a music constantly in transition. A lot more online migration for instance; as well as a maturing and pragmatic interest in apps; a changing of the guard at BBC R3’s Monday flagship jazz show on air; more valuable academic debate; and positive professional organisations such as the Jazz Promotion Network gaining ground little by little just some of the headlines.

More broadly and reading between the lines we this year do not seem as hung up on where jazz is coming from which is healthy but interested more in where it is going. More of a preoccupation thanks partly because the Internet is ubiquitously mapping the present tense so much more intuitively and gives us a pretty good media version of where jazz is at anywhere on the planet just about in real time. The point in claiming this is that nationality or a quantifiable set of cultural signifiers do not define excellence per se. We can see that more easily now than pre-web, it was never so clear before given our very patchy knowledge about jazz in other parts of the world. And that is even bearing in mind a pride within many jazz advocates in the achievements and accomplishments of a local scene and a concomitant urge no matter how subconsciously to lend support to it. Jazz as a global music has also grown hugely since the 1990s when the web first entered our lives especially in tertiary education and internationally. Take a look at the work of the EJN and Jazz Ahead to see just how international it has become in terms of promotion and sales in Europe alone during the last decade. 

Global jazz itself, beyond the cycle of the publicity wheel, revolves around a small number of figures, often late middle aged and elderly icons, keeping on keeping on to still inspire the young guns to shine as brightly, their suitcases, boarding passes and instruments in hand: no musical passports, just open hearts and minds, required. SG  
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ Ugetsu snuck in among a number of stone cold classics from the likes of Mingus and Kenny Burrell in 1963, another, half decent year. Looking forward instead? Yes. Well, alright, OK, you win

Everyone wants to say ‘forward’ to the direct question in the headline; but did events prove worthy of such a wish?

Only the ‘retrovivalists’ – those who obsessively mine the past to direct their version of the present – prefer back and leave it largely to the third category the fearful and uninspired for jazz to stand still.

Signs that jazz, if it is even possible to speak of it as a single entity, is going forward usually depend on which retro trend is deemed current or failing that sufficiently ‘on message’ for cultural reasons to negate a current malaise.

The ultimate end-of-an-era moment more than a half a century on from a pivotal time in the development of a new jazz idiom was that 2015 saw the passing of Ornette Coleman who really did predict the future for the music because of or in spite of (take your pick) The Shape of Jazz To Come. Free-jazzwith only Cecil Taylor the last of the first pioneers still with us, is now as much a vivid historical memory as events even further back in jazz history such as the Harlem renaissance act as a reminder of past glories.

In terms of going forward I’m not sure if Kamasi Washington is the future of jazz but he is clearly a titanic new force on the tenor saxophone, possibly the greatest new saxophonist to emerge from the US scene since the first stirrings of David Murray. It didn’t hurt at all that Washington reached hip-hop fans on the back of his involvement on the album To Pimp a Butterfly. And it’s clear that the last jazz musician to reach hip-hop fans in the same way was Robert Glasper in his case via J Dilla and the Mos Def fanbase; in Washingtons case helped by the huge appetite for the music and message of Kendrick Lamar.

Some of the retrovivalist trends 
Hard bop... increasing ubiquity
Trad... dusted down and reimagined
Big band... even swing is part of the bonanza

In terms of retrovival Buddy Rich’s legacy wasn’t enhanced by the movie Whiplash; and in some ways the issuing of the master takes of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme even bearing in mind a few five star reviews that missed the significant argument that A Love Supreme is a perfection in itself not at all bettered by issuing extra takes warts and all that actually reduce rather than improve (at best provide ‘raw data’ only) that classic album’s reputation.

As for the Miles Davis industry the bootleg series has now reached the point when even long time fans have stopped caring about the endless amount of ‘new’ material out there. Reissue fatigue has set in leaving Milesologists to look instead to film or other art forms to continue the story in new ways that live recordings cannot convey. Whether Don Cheadle’s biopic, which received mixed and poor reviews, provides that service isn’t clear at all at this stage as the film hasn’t been widely released beyond the festival circuit in the States. Perhaps a theatre drama (definitely not a jukebox musical!) will instead emerge that might have as much validity in the future.

One thing that was clear in 2015 was that the grip corporate labels and publicists, even well run indie labels and any kind of PR firms, have had on jazz sales and marketing over many years, is lessening that bit more because of social media and DIY gonzo publicity by artists and advocates. That’s a good thing for the under resourced self-employed bandleader out there and also for the established artist in hock to huge overheads demanded by the business to move a stalled career into gear again. It’s clearly better, for too many reasons to list but chiefly artistic control, that musicians opt to run their own jazz labels and do their own promotion given how small the returns are as costs continue to rise. Live performance is what counts: get the gigs first, book a studio down the line. Everything can then follow on. 

The future as always is an unknown and this isn’t the place to make predictions for 2016. But one thing is easy: jazz will never stand still. If it does it dies and that’s not going to happen optimists will argue. Forward is still an aspiration and a direction worth pursuing.  

One of the most sensitive questions to ask a musician isn’t always personal stuff.

Instead it tends to be “who is your biggest influence?” You might not want to put it quite like that or you might get a bit of a look. You can tease it out usually or just guess laying out a few hints here and there and then the interviewee will either light up in recognition or make you feel as if you are the most ill-informed person in the world ever for having the temerity to think, let alone, suggest that.

It is, in a way, another highly personal question as great music is about individuality, having your own sound, saying something that’s yours and no one else’s. But usually, despite this, the most aware (and more self-effacing?) musicians will, if they know they won’t be misinterpreted, happily talk about their heroes and those who have influenced them even if the process might take a few years until their careers have caught fire and they have nothing to lose.

I’m not saying that people should analyse their own styles because that’s not needed but put it this way if someone knows every solo Charlie Parker ever made or every fill Elvin Jones created or knows the weight and decay of every time Charlie Haden put finger to string then analysis is replaced by deep knowledge that needs to find self-expression.

Somebody who is a perfect stylist and they’re still relatively early into their career may at some stage change to throw everything aside and somehow use what style they have meticulously absorbed as a way into their own thing.

They might just as easily, however, reach some sort of fork in the road, just be happy with their lot as a stylist, and go still deeper into that style choosing to play in the same vein all their lives.

Names aren’t needed but there are a huge number of jazz players out there in this latter distinction and they remain great players and engender tremendous loyalty. Going to their gigs you know exactly what you’re going to hear stylistically and sometimes you might even dig out their heroes’ music beforehand and listen to it to get in the mood.

The fascinating end result is what the disciple produces may well allow new insights on the original inspiration itself and fills in the missing bits never created in the first place or takes what has been created a big step further, dancing to the music of time. SG

Interlocking patterns the name of the game

Brooklyn band Dawn of Midi’s Dysnomia (**** RECOMMENDED) may mean nothing to you. Why should it, it’s not even out yet? Well it will mean something to you when you hear it I’d guess unless your ears have fallen down a pot hole and there’s a kind of odd scary subterranean sonic glare that only allows you to hear old Glenn Miller records properly. Californian bassist Aakaash Israni of Indian descent; Moroccan-born former CalArts student pianist Amino Belyamani; and Connecticut percussionist Qasim Naqvi have come up with something special here. The indie rock press is picking up on it, but it’s kind of jazz as well really although keep that to yourself. There’s been an album already called First that disappeared without a trace and an EP apparently called, not that imaginatively, Live; but the time is right now. The label putting out Dysnomia a word that has stumped the lexico-boffins of at least two well known dictionaries I checked * is Thirsty Ear, best known for its sterling work putting out Matthew Shipp’s albums in quantity. So what’s it all about and is Dysnomia actually beyond definition that the title suggests? Well, not quite. ‘Sinope’ is like Terry Riley-meets-Radiohead which is not a bad place to be. Not as austere as The Necks but not that far away. But how samey is it? Well not very: locked grooves are a great leveller and to my mind running the changes in old bebop patterns can be pretty samey and tedious sometimes too if you can guess where the improvising line is going, which you often can. But when you can't, it's sheer joy. I’m not sure about how much improvising is going on here, but it does feel loose. The scintillating ‘Atlas’ channels the percussion sound of a Zakir Hussain perhaps, whereas the set-up on ‘Nix’ is pure road movie soundtrack; and you can imagine someone like Ry Cooder adding a lonely moment or two to scythe the air here. The band themselves name check Aphex Twin and Can as influences; and there’s been a lot of post-production with two mixes and mastering processes involved. Not that the sound is glossy at all. ‘Moon’ starts to veer off into a space that could go anywhere, and Belyamani even starts to channel Brad Mehldau a bit just with single notes. ‘Ymir’ has a jangling bhangra feel to the beginning (great dance tune), so it's music for the mind and the body as well.
Stephen Graham
Released on 6 August
Dawn of Midi’s Qasim Naqvi above left, Aakaash Israni, and Amino Belyamani. Photo: Falkwyn de Goyeneche
(* The word means possessing a difficulty or inability to think of the right word at the right time; but the context here is that the titles are moons!)

UPDATED Belyamani is Moroccan-born and the music is not improvised. Apologies.


Joyce guests on Harry Allen quartet set Something about Jobim (***1/2) on the Danish Stunt label, an album that was recorded in a Brooklyn studio the summer before last. The Brazilian adds her low toned poetically oblique sensuous input that Allen in his more fogeyish days never really could capture.

Her tune written with Gerry Mulligan, ‘Theme for Jobim,’ (above in a much earlier version with Milton Nascimento), remains simply, staggeringly beautiful. Tenorist Allen whose tone lifts even his non-fans to admiration and silence simply plays out of himself. There isn’t too much distracting swing, drummer Tutty Moreno instead plays a blinder, keeping it really casual by casting a rhythmic invisible spell hypnotically in the air. 

While there are dozens of Jobim songbook albums his music is so constant it reels back the years. Jobim songs are on hundreds of albums but if push were to come to shove I’d go for 1967’s Francis Albert Sinatra & Antônio Carlos Jobim or, just one song, one version, ‘Corcovado’ on Quiet Nights by Miles Davis from four years earlier. On the Allen album the tenorist is joined by Helio Alves on piano, producer Rudolfo Stroeter on bass join Moreno and Joyce (on a few tracks), the album opening with the classic ‘Dindi.’ Allen has learnt a lot from Coleman Hawkins and is now a falconer of considerable skill and taste. In brief it is the Tom and Harry, Joyce-stealing show. And no one can ever in the theme for Tom forget Gerry.

Interesting, understatement or what? Actually pretty stimulating – today’s listening has revolved mainly around Matt Mayhall’s Tropes, out next month on Skirl records (the tasteful US label that has Anna Webber on it).

Mayhall is a drummer/composer who reminds me of Steve Reid a little with dollops of Paul Motian thrown in. Based in Los Angeles his jazz playing credits include Larry Goldings and Adam Benjamin, Tim Lefebvre and Eric Revis, and he was drummer on Charlie Haden’s final recorded performance, Spain’s song ‘You And I.’ He also drums for Aimee Mann, that’s as cool as it gets as any Paul Thomas Anderson fan well knows.

Tropes has guitarist Jeff Parker from Tortoise on it and bassist Paul Bryan (Aimee Mann, Meshell Ndegeocello), as well as keyboardist Jeff Babko (Frank Ocean, Mark Guiliana’s Beat Music), and tenor saxophonist Chris Speed (Human Feel, Claudia Quintet).

The tunes are Mayhall’s and there’s a great lazy quality to them, mood and space hugely catered for and interesting riffs arriving from nowhere that suddenly go somewhere as the band catch on and run with new ideas and input.

It’s the sort of record you might have thought can’t really exist as it falls through the cracks of so many different kinds of music, a kind of a slacker ECM vision with a bit more blood and guts to it than some of the German label’s more pastel shades and poking through lots of bluesy connotations, hints and nods. Parker is magnificent as ever and Mayhall has incredible cymbal touch and a authoritative swagger about him that frames the whole sound. Just great.

Mayhall’s website is here if you want to check out more on the drummer, pictured. 

Photo: Kelly Jones