Sebastian Sternal, Home, Traumton

From 2017. A must for anyone interested in probing ever more deeply into the mystery of the contemporary piano trio: a gentle wash of an opening to pianist Sebastian Sternal’s highest profile album to date, the coup for the German the presence of …

Published: 3 Dec 2019. Updated: 3 years.

From 2017. A must for anyone interested in probing ever more deeply into the mystery of the contemporary piano trio: a gentle wash of an opening to pianist Sebastian Sternal’s highest profile album to date, the coup for the German the presence of bassist Larry Grenadier who to my mind is a Dave Holland of his generation and illuminates any record he happens to appear on, with Brad Mehldau or as here not.

Does he gel with the Germans? That’s a big fat yes. ‘I Am the Ocean’ with its splashy scene setting does what it says on the tin. Drummer Jonas Burgwinkel has more of a role on the next track ‘Go’ and the trio show more of what they can do after the fluffy beginning.

Sternal, Brad Mehldau might well be looking over his shoulder at just what the German can do so very differently but just as compellingly, likes to rummage away to shake a sense of movement from raw materials and let the jagged intervals he prefers collide into the response of his playing partners. The album takes a while to settle into its rhapsodic heart but the sense of anarchy before the whole picture reveals itself is never far away and lifts the music from possibly snoozing blamelessly to blare into life having prepared your ears for some unique insights.

Sternal has won the respect of the German jazz industry over the years winning awards along the way but beyond his native land is hardly known at all, an not uncommon occurrence in jazz from continental Europe where country borders often seal in an artist’s appeal even with our means of listening more widely than ever released from the shackles of physical product.

Maybe Home paradoxically bearing the title in mind will export a bit more and certainly deserves to although it is hard to pinpoint just why Sternal is unique. The Cologne player certainly does not go for the riffy beefiness of a pianist such as Neil Cowley or the maddeningly neat precision of Rusconi and there is more life here than archetypal chamber jazz, the borrowing from classical music lightly sketched in.

Sternal knows how to take the tune apart. On ‘Sand’ for instance it is more like free improv in the execution and there is a fragmentary sense of exploration that is appealing and shows how far out the trio are willing to take their ideas. Burgwinkel factors in a Paul Motian sense of abandon and there is a free, open flavour to the direction of the album, the harshnesses of bebop recede but the method still applies.

The title track has a folky glow to it and has more clarity than some of the other tracks, an appealing simplicity that is expanded on by Sternal who is able to set up the tune using a very small number of building blocks and leaves it to Burgwinkel to add colour and motion. This the drummer does well. There is a sense of character here.

‘Gravity’ is more filler but ‘Winter’ has bottomless depth and seriousness while ‘Alias’ opens the trio up to let Grenadier take up the reins, slapping his strings hard as the rhythms pile down and Sternal moves into Chick Corea territory, little latinate touches and swaggering runs flying up and down the octaves just one indication of how at ease he is with the big statement as well as the masterly miniatures he by contrast can elsewhere serve up. A gem of an album. Sternal somehow manages to reclaim the melodic imperative without making the results trite or allow a lukewarm compromise to prevail. SG


Robert Mitchell, Dana Masters, Dennis Rollins Velocity trio, Bennigans/Millennium Forum, City of Derry Jazz and Big Band Festival

From 2015. Strong on atmosphere, inclusive stylistically, mostly the action, and there is plenty of it in this music-obsessed city, is in small combos in bars and pubs, with theatre shows too, and the sounds of jazz even cropping up in shopping …

Published: 3 Dec 2019. Updated: 3 years.

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From 2015. Strong on atmosphere, inclusive stylistically, mostly the action, and there is plenty of it in this music-obsessed city, is in small combos in bars and pubs, with theatre shows too, and the sounds of jazz even cropping up in shopping centres and on the street.

The weather was a maverick element certainly on the Sunday night, warm waters gushing down Shipquay Street by late-evening, festivalgoers dashing to grab cabs and get in out of the rain. The upshot of all this, part of the random joy of a festival, is that sometimes you’ll seek shelter and find some unexpected gains.

Best for me running for cover was hearing the strains of Herbie Hancock’s ‘Chameleon’ outside one bar and turning inside Masons to hear Neil Burns aka Comrade Hat playing the tune in a small sax-led band tucked away in front of enthusiastic dancers who were spinning all kinds of shapes on the impromptu dancefloor.

Earlier, over at John Leighton’s Bennigans jazz club on John Street, pianist Robert Mitchell, who first made his name in the 1990s with J-Life and whose playing credits include spells with MBASE don Steve Coleman, was playing a rare solo set. And while the set was hampered a little by extraneous bar room noise spilling out from behind the dark curtain this was a fascinating left-hand masterclass, the Essex man playing material largely from his Whirlwind album The Glimpse that included his own pieces for left hand only as well as a version of classical composer Frederico Mompou’s ‘Prelude No 6.’

Mitchell also played ‘Cycle’ by Bheki Mseleku, from the South African’s 1990s album Celebration, and ‘Cumulus’ a piece that goes back to Mitchell’s 2008 3io album The Greater Good, one of his most enjoyable albums to date.

Dressed in a pair of jeans and a simple short-sleeved T shirt with what looked like a puma depicted on the front Mitchell at one stage asked the audience to sing something back to him, raw material on which he would improvise, and, quickly, four sung notes were provided in a lilting chant-like style by one man sitting over to Mitchell’s right provoking a superb response full of clarity from Mitchell that used the four notes as a leitmotif returned to and deconstructed during the course of the piece.

One of the great virtuoso jazz talents of his generation on the competitive London jazz scene this was an excellent performance that highlighted pure improvisation and fearless creativity.

The Derry jazz festival is packed full of contrasts and over at the Rocking Chair on Waterloo Street in the early evening a big turn-out gathered for the unselfconscious blues-rock of the Bluez Katz, a band who seem to have come out of nowhere but who will be supporting Van Morrison at the Blues on the Bay festival at Warrrenpoint later this month in one of their highest profile gigs to date.

The six-piece opened with jazzy concession ‘Fever’ effortlessly segueing into ‘Summertime,’ the blues and tumbling rock riffs then gradually introduced, inevitably teasing an outbreak of dad dancing as the band tore into John Lee Hooker’s ‘Boom Boom.’

The warm rain was falling steadily by now outside. But over at the bar of the Maldron hotel it was snug and dry, drummer Rebecca Montgomery (often heard playing with classic jazz singer Fiona Scott Trotter) was tipping along to provide some mainstream accompaniment on a vocals-led ‘Route 66’ in front of a packed bar, tenorist Harry Connolly riffing effortlessly like a more languid version of Dexter Gordon perhaps, a very old school romantic tenor at heart.


At the Millennium Forum singer Dana Masters, whose excellent live EP was launched and released in March, included some original material in the first set that she said would be a contender for a full-length album. And I’d be amazed if major labels don’t come knocking on her door just on the evidence of the lyrically strong ‘Crossing Lines’ alone. The deep soul of Roosevelt Jamieson’s ‘That’s How Strong My Love Is,’ a song synonymous with Otis Redding, was a wonderful beginning to a set that included Corinne Bailey Rae's ‘Like A Star’, the final line just like oil on my hands delivered with great impact and feeling, Masters’ emotive Randy Crawford-like voice tender and real backed by a very tight Linley Hamilton band.

Missing the second set reluctantly I headed across to hear UK jazz trombone legend Dennis Rollins who was appearing with his crack Velocity band at Bennigans just a short walk away. Hot and steamy inside, the first set had just finished, the Rollins trio with Ross Stanley on organ and Pedro Segundo, drums, is quite a loud band and that helped with all the noise coming from behind the curtain, only the quieter number of the set, a treatment of Portuguese anti-fascist songwriter José Zeca Afonso’s ‘Senhora De Almortão’, the only one that could have done with a bit more hush.

Segundo, who became well known for his sterling work as one of the house drummers at Ronnie Scott’s, often appearing over the years at the Frith Street London home of jazz with club artistic director James Pearson, has massive technique and can switch time and feel on demand. He can go up to drum’n’bass-type beats-per-minute energy levels and then drop back to a curling funk groove without even blinking an eye, and as a straightahead stylist has bags of control. He gave the ex-Maceo Parker man Rollins, who has a big sound himself, the support he needed for the souped-up straightahead Velocity treatment that is leavened with a lightly toasted jazz-funk flavouring.

Wading into Pink Floyd waters, a highly visceral version of Roger Waters’ ‘Money’ that is featured on the band’s new album Symbiosis, was the big highlight, as was a superb ‘Freedom Jazz Dance’ the time signature changing many times to ramp up the interest level and keep the audience guessing. The audience were on their feet, the only standing ovation I witnessed during my brief visit to the festival, and this was thoroughly deserved. A sentimental lightly gospelised version of Amanda McBroom weepie ‘The Rose’ from the late-1970s just like the album didn’t flatter to deceive and we were all lucky to have crammed into Bennigans to witness this awesome Rollins display.

Stephen Graham