- DELTA SAXOPHONE QUARTET/ HUGH HOPPER Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge (February 2008)
- WAYNE SHORTER QUARTET Barbican Hall, London (April 2008)
- ALEXANDER HAWKINS ENSEMBLE Churchill College Recital Room, Cambridge (May 2008)
- CORSANO/ BEVAN / LASH The Wheatsheaf, Oxford (July 2008)
- SAKOTO FUJJI MIN-YOH ENSEMBLE Calouste Gulbenkhian Foundation, Lisbon (August 2008)
DELTA SAXOPHONE QUARTET WITH HUGH HOPPER
KETTLE’S YARD, CAMBRIDGE, 8/2/2008.
The Delta Saxophone Quartet are using instrumentation generally associated with jazz, but this isn’t the World Saxophone Quartet: for one, they focus far more on British music, and for another they are far more likely to perform composed classical pieces than to launch into searing improvisations. This project, then, is something of a departure, in that one might expect it to lean more towards rock music, yet one must not forget that Soft Machine were always a band with a strong jazz pedigree – they had far more jazz in them than many of the dire fusion acts that were marketed as jazz in the 70s and 80s. The presence of Softs’ bassist Hugh Hopper lends some historical credibility to the ‘tribute project’ – though re-interpretation/ re-imagining sounds a whole lot better, and is probably closer to the spirit of the thing.
In fact, Hopper guests on just one track on the group’s album of Soft Machine compositions, ‘Dedicated to You…But You Weren’t Listening’, so here was a good opportunity to expand on that, as he joined them for a whole gig, with a chance to flesh out their collaboration, and tackle some additional material. Also joining the group, giving things a greater rhythmic emphasis in line with the jazz/rock flavour of Hopper’s compositions, was drummer Simon Pearson.
In fact, both Hopper and Pearson were featured sparingly in the first half of the concert, which instead was devoted to predominantly composed pieces, played by the Quartet, in a classical/ minimalist/ pastoral vein akin to some of Gavin Bryars’ more accessible work (and more in line with the group’s previous recordings). In itself, this was attractive, and the four-saxophone texture yielded some smooth and sonorous sounds, but ultimately what was played was not all that memorable – even soprano player Graeme Bevins’ use of electronics (mainly loops and echoes controlled by foot pedals) was so-so, coming across as a more of a gimmick than something integrated fully into the music. When Hopper did solo (making more interesting use of electronics, something he has worked with for a number of years), the mood was rudely interrupted by Simon Pearsons’ drums (clattering, loud, and aggressive) and all the looped soundscape detail was consequently rather hard to pick up. Unfortunately, then, it appeared that there was a somewhat tenuous balance between the pretty but rather insubstantial quartet pieces, and Pearons’ attempt to ratchet things up a notch, which instead spoiled the mood and didn’t really come up with a convincing alternative.
In the second half, though, things picked up, with Hopper playing far more, a short guest appearance by Japanese pianist Yumi Hara Caukwell, and a greater focus on the Soft Machine material. Tunes likes ‘Kings and Queens’ and ‘Facelift’ still sound fresh, and more substantial than a lot of the rather sketchy material that made up the ‘heads’ at the start of jazz-rock bands’ improvisatory workouts (think Miles Davis’ construction of pieces from repeating riffs and minimal melodic fragments). The best piece on the night, though, was the least polished, the most raw (they’d first played it through in its entirety the day before): a length treatment of the Soft Machine classic ‘Esther’s Nose Job.’ Hopper’s groovy bass line leant a firm foundation for saxophone pyrotechnics, highlights being the impressive Pete Whyman, stretching out for an alto solo, and a short section for free baritone and drums only, before things ended with a haunting pastoral.
Overall, I’d say that the concert was probably too long – despite the variety of different instrumental configurations and the attempt to mix things up by juxtaposing the Soft Machine material with classical pieces, the Delta Quartet couldn’t quite sustain things for two hours. As the evening wore on, though, they succeeded in generating something like energy that Soft Machine themselves generated in their 70s rock-crowd gigs, leavened with a melancholy delicacy that was best in small amounts.
WAYNE SHORTER QUARTET
BARBICAN HALL, LONDON, 25/4/2008.
Wayne Shorter’s music is not useful – at least, not in the limited sense of immediately visible, practical results, with which the word is invariably associated in today’s world of ‘targets’ and form-ticking. But is precisely because of this that such art, has value, and I feel it important to stress the point in the case of a musician whose work means a damn sight more to me than many more ostensibly ‘useful’ things.
Shorter’s music isn’t going to visibly change the world. It won’t stop famine, it won’t cure AIDS, it won’t prevent needless wars from being fought and needless blood from being shed the world over. It won’t cure cancer, it won’t discover the secret of eternal life, it won’t stop racism, it won’t get rid of social inequality.
But who’s to say that life is just about that? All great art, essentially, is about encountering and discovering elements of what it means to be human, and whether it does this through direct social and political engagement, as in the work of countless artists whose work has precipitated, laid the grounds for, and participated in change, or through more indirect, elliptical forms – as with the music of Wayne Shorter – it’s just as vital to our continued existence as the practical realms of science, healthcare and the like.
Anyway, who says that to counteract dogma, to counteract creeds that are killing people across the world, what is required is an equal dose of dogma? Perhaps an alternative can be sought – not a total escape, or even an evasion, but another pathway, a third way, if you like. In that sense, Shorter’s music is a manifesto in itself, affirming that there are some things which are out of the reach of the system, which create true value, value outside the monetary.
But enough of that. Let’s get down to specifics. Much of Shorter’s music is about tension – between structure and freedom, between the rhythm section (which often keeps things grounded in grooves and swing) and angular saxophone abstractions. On a record such as 1967’s ‘Schizophrenia’, for example, ‘Tom Thumb’ is based around a really memorable groove, but with quite experimental solos. Or, to take another case, ‘Speak No Evil’, from a few years earlier, with its bop and swing base for more fairly ‘out’ soloing.
Or, most notably, the version of ‘Visitor from Nowhere’ at the Barbican in 2006, where Perez’ repeated chords and Blade’s crashing drumming, accentuating them, created an inexorable feel that simultaneously needed release and felt like it would (and must) never end as Shorter screamed and screamed the melody on soprano sax . In the end, it just died away – there was just nowhere more to go, no way to go beyond what had just been created – until the next concert, that is. Absolutely fantastic.
In all these examples, the relatively solid base – rhythmic, harmonic, melodic – makes the music more effective than if it had just been a case of free jazz flying on its own, with purely the invention of the players to sustain it. I’m sure Shorter could play equally well in that context – in fact, I know he could – just take a listen to his burning playing with Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Jack de Johnette in Miles Davis’ ‘Lost Quintet’. But the special ability of his current quartet in particularly is to evoke the same sort of feelings – of possession, transportation, of being forced to listen and become caught up in the experience of a whole-body musical experience – that free jazz does.
My last experience of the Shorter Quartet was at the same venue – the Barbican Hall. I vividly remember emerging from the doors, fresh from the experience of, among other things, that afore-mentioned version of ‘Visitor from Nowhere’, then walking down the stairs, and overhearing a couple of other concert goers. The guy was expounding vigorously on the virtues of the concert to his girlfriend, as if he couldn’t quite believe what he’d just seen, illustrating one of WS’s sudden soprano sax screams with a vigorous upward hand motion, captivated by the sheer perfect logical oddness of WS’s playing.
That sort of wonder is what WS’s music inspires, and I’m sure that’s what everyone was hoping he would reproduce as he returned to England for the first time since that triumphant Barbican performance two years ago. As with that memorable occasion, things began in a somewhat tentative fashion, despite Shorter whistling into the microphone, a playful call to attention. A reticent Blade seemed to be prodding Shorter, trying to get him to set out his ground; in the end, it was left to Perez, Pattitucci and Blade to establish a preliminary direction while Shorter (who always appears to be somewhat nervous) fidgeted with his saxophones, picking up first one, then the other, before playing the first, inquisitive notes on tenor; taking a few preliminary footsteps before leaping further and further out into the “unknown” region that he’s claimed to be reaching for in interviews. An arco bass solo lead to a bass/piano duet, Shorter came in with a mysterious free ballad, concentrating on a smooth upper register, his flowing, trilling phrases matched by Perez’ floridity. The ‘tunes’ as such are surrounded by interludes – often piano and bass duets, or bass and piano solos, and so the music may feel a little stop-start, at least to those used to the theme-solos-theme structure; this was more like a jigsaw puzzle where things only slot together and make complete sense once every piece is correctly connected. Whether you characterise it as nervousness or probing patience, it wasn’t until 17 minutes in that Shorter really let rip, blowing loudly, and then going silent for two minutes to let the music build again.
And so it went on: music packed with incident and elegance, lyricism and passion, in which the participants displayed to the full their instrumental virtuosity yet were sensitive enough to allow the occasional reduction of elements to their simplest form, for dramatic effect. A few familiar tunes appeared, even if, more often than not, they were merely hinted at, never fully stated (such was the case with ‘She Moves Through the Fair’). The lengthy performances, though, were clearly structured, however much freedom and spontaneity they allowed – Perez’ piano was covered with sheet music, and Shorter’s little hand signals, or just quick glances (tricks learned from Miles Davis) saw him functioning as ‘musical director’, not just saxophonist. Perhaps this was more experimental than the 2006 Barbican date – the band entering a new phase, exploring different areas, in order to prevent sterility. It sounded, for example, as though several new compositions, or sketches were being used, several of them focussing on repetitive or march-like piano vamps (again, that pull between grounding grooves and abstract speculations).
For the encore, Shorter whistled a familiar melody – grinned – and then launched into the obligatory dramatic climax, this time centred around ‘Midnight on Carlota’s Hair’, a melody of mysterious dark beauty and velvet sensuality. He delivered swirling tone colours, first on tenor and then soprano, but it was clear that this was all build-up; what he wanted to do was to play the melody LOUD, to repeat it over and over. And yet stasis was avoided – a combination of timing, sound quality/ timbre and control of volume/ dynamics, created a wonderful pent-up impact. Blade abandoned his sticks to hit the drums with his hands; then woozy soprano, a focus on just one note for a quiet ending, yet with an impact that was deafening, translating itself into delighted applause.
ALEXANDER HAWKINS ENSEMBLE
CHURCHILL COLLEGE RECITAL ROOM, CAMBRIDGE, 18/5/2008.
As you’ll have seen from the comprehensive interview earlier on the magazine, Alexander Hawkins is a musician very conscious of jazz roots, of antecedents, at the same time as being aware of the necessity to develop his own personal means of expression without being overwhelmed by the weight of past or present peers. Informed by his awareness of musical history, then, he feels equipped to take risks, and that really manifests itself with this group – first, in choosing such an unusual combination of instruments (this may be the first piano/guitar/steel pan/cello/bass/drums ensemble in existence!) and second, in the choice of material – a couple of Anthony Braxton charts, some Sun Ra and Leo Smith mixed in with Duke Ellington and original compositions.
Opening proceedings, though, were local group Assembly Point Three, operating that night as a trio (although they are usually a quartet named Assembly Point Four, with pianist Tom Wood being the fourth member). Saxophonist Josh Ison’s tone was burnished and burly, hard-edged yet not overly steely, progressive yet clearly working within the vocabulary of jazz. His playing, and that of the group as a whole, struck me as having something of the spirit of a musician like Tim Berne, working within quite strict parameters. In Berne’s case, these parameters would be the knotty, lengthy phrases of his own sprawling, spiraling compositions; in Ison’s, they were the traditional vocabulary of sax and rhythm section interaction. Also praiseworthy were Rick Hudson’s un-flashy, head-down drumming and Michael Chilcott’s versatile bass work.
In the second half, the Hawkins Ensemble began with the not inconsiderable challenge of putting their own spin on Anthony Braxton’s ‘Composition No. 40 (O).’ It came off well: the somewhat hard-edged sound afforded by the piano/vibes/guitar combination (perhaps counterbalanced by the warmer sound of Marshall’s bowed cello playing) suited Braxton’s writing down to a tee, although occasionally I missed the presence of a trumpet or saxophone to add a ‘hot’ element into the mix. Elsewhere, Hawkins’ own compositions showed a Braxton-esque spikiness, with the playful, street-wise feel of ‘Cowley Road Strut’ particularly standing out. There was structural boldness, too; rather than the usual theme-solos-theme-applause structure that might suit a jazz club atmosphere, things were more suite-like, as pieces smoothly segued together (this was a classical recital room, after all). The band seemed more concerned with teasing out the nuances of the compositions they were playing (as opposed to using them as an attractive opening gambit before the serious business of the solos gets underway) and with creating ensemble textures, than with anyone taking a lead – though that’s not to imply that they were directionless, playing with a collective focus, an intensity of purpose that belied their different backgrounds and individual modes of expression. Thus, it was a particularly selfless performance – for a young band-leader, perhaps it’s inevitable that one might want to show off one’s chops (especially if they’re as well-developed as Hawkins’), and for a jazz legend like Orphy Robinson, the best-known member of the group, the temptation might also have been to showboat – but neither of these things happened, which was very pleasant to see.
Moments of repose were a beautiful five-minute solo feature for Otto Fischer, delicately vocalizing what sounded like a love song (he wasn’t using a microphone, so the words were a little hard to hear) while accompanying himself on guitar, and a wonderful Hawkins solo piano feature in which he enthusiastically dived inside the instrument to pluck the strings and whizzed around the keyboard in between extemporizing on Ellington’s ‘Warm Valley’ (a tune whose provenance I couldn’t place when I heard it played live, but which stayed in my head for several days afterward). ‘Love in Outer Space’, always one of the catchiest Sun Ra numbers, exploiting its lilting, joyous potential to the full, and the band closed on a note of solemn, almost hymnal hush with Leo Smith’s minor-key ‘Nuru Light: The Prince of Peace’, dedicated to Martin Luther King, to which the combined sound of Hannah Marshall’s cello and Dom Lash’s bass was particularly suited.
Bits of the whole scope of jazz tradition then – it wouldn’t have surprised me if they’d burst out into a Jelly Roll Morton number, arranged free-jazz style – and a truly collective, ego-free group, making a sound that was frequently pleasant, in mainstream terms, but was also not afraid to take things further out when necessary.
A new CD is in the offing (in fact, the recording session came the day after this concert), and, if this particular performance was anything to go by, it should be a really interesting listen. Watch this space.
CHRIS CORSANO/ TONY BEVAN / DOMINIC LASH
THE WHEATSHEAF, OXFORD, 6/7/2008.
In the small, half-empty upstairs room of an Oxford pub, three musicians were exploring musical possibilities and the possibility of mixing individual assertiveness with collaborative interaction and co-operation. Drummer Chris Corsano, perhaps best known for the power psychadelia of his duo with Mick Flower, and fresh from a tour with Bjork, has shown himself to be equally capable in numerous different contexts, one of them being free improvisation; Tony Bevan has the seal of approval of legendary drummer Sunny Murray (he appears in a trio with Murray and bassist John Edwards on ‘The Gearbox Explodes!’ from 2006), and Dom Lash is one of the busiest and most reliable improv bassists around.
The first set begins with Bevan on tenor, playing straight free jazz (if there can be said to be such a thing), as he gradually raises his sound from one level to another, further and further into altissimo ranges. Lash takes a short bass solo, exploiting weird arco harmonics after a short, plucked prelude with a Jimmy Garrison feel; a sad, almost subdued feel, sounds dragged downwards, the suggestion of a motor. Bevan’s re-entry seems to force a little more conventionality on things (not necessarily his fault – it’s just that the sound of the saxophone has so many connotations) – and there’s a free jazz finish.
Bevan switches to soprano for the second piece. An edgy, punchy opening sees Corsano sticking cloths over the drums to mute the sound. Soprano skitter, bird flutter, trilled ululations. Lash comes in circling over the strings with his bow, Corsano introduces shakers, bells. Sax becomes more flowing over bowed bass. Soon we’re back to free jazz, Bevan walking with an occasional, somewhat Coltraneish reedy tone – as he did when playing tenor, he introduces a few melodic phrases, partly as respite yet still settled in the flow of free sax note-shudders. Corsano delivers pell-mell thunder from drum to drum with cymbal bursts to accentuate, or, as here, to ride while Lash pluck-scrapes in a vaguely jazzy manner. The bass is eerie arco again, the soprano back in with a piercing shriek, Corsano places a cymbal on the snare, holds it in place with both feet and vigorously scrapes across it with two bows. All three instruments concentrated into little high sonorities, soprano hissing noises, all creating a kind of intense sustain very hard to maintain at these pitches. Corsano is blowing into some sort of mouthpiece at the end of curved black tube, his head contorted to one side. If the first piece felt like a saxophonist leading a rhythm section, this is a much more integrated experience, and the better for it.
Once more, Bevan switches horns, this time to the massive beast that is the bass saxophone, on which he achieves a surprising fluidity (without sacrificing the instrument’s gnarly quality). From his fingers and breath emerges an out of breath howl, wind struggling to make itself heard, the gasp of a death rattle, whoops and low growls. Lash grinds the bass strings, then plays behind them, while Corsano bows on what sounds like a deconstructed bass (just one of the accoutrements he adds to the conventional drum kit). There’s a great concentration on sounds here, which I would say lends the music more of an improv aesthetic than a free jazz aesthetic (perhaps dictated by the unwieldy nature of Bevan’s instrument as much as anything, although there does seem to have been a gradual progression throughout the concert.) It’s as if the three players are hovering in the suspenseful anticipation of an event about to happen, but don’t want to spoil things by launching in with clunky ‘moving on’ devices; the music is waiting to explode, or just to slip back under the surface, like bubbles in the ice.
Bevan spins out solemn, slow melodies– this instrument can’t help but sound ominous, yet he introduces a plaintive lyrical quality as well, as he tells the story of some lament. A Ken Vandermark-esque riff releases things; Corsano switches back to the conventional drum kit, keeping up an almost constant cymbal spatter while the sax eases in, becomes more confident, strides out (but of course always with that edge, the memory of the sad/ sinister opening). Fragility underlies the ostensible brawniness of this straighter free jazz section, emerging in full cry as despairing high yells are juxtaposed with low-down honks; not so much self-dialogue as self-combat. Things are on the verge of hysteria, an altissimo shrieking figure repeats itself over and over but finds nowhere to go, so things subside for something more serene-sinister, with Corsano on the brushes and Lash playing arco once more. They constantly avoid full-blown balladry, yet constantly hint at it as well – a menacing tenderness, given added colour by the eerie, almost robotic multiphonics that emerge from the bass sax.
A long, sustained note leaves just bass and drums, working round an idea that first came in behind that note. Voice-like, Mingus ‘What Love’ wood-snap as Bevan wipes his brow, bell harmonics and Corsano’s bowing over his stringed implements…Solemn lament introduced on tenor sax, undercut by scittery metallic percussion (Corsano at this point doing anything to avoid conventional beating implements, it seems – using his hands, knives and forks, to make a familiar kit seem strange again). Volume rising, Corsano returning to the sticks, really getting it, loud batteries, surges, Bevan eyes closed, red-faced blowing, momentarily takes out sax mouthpiece and emits a human scream. No let-up, things only step when the mouthpiece gets fucked up, and, adapting to circumstance, bass and drums abruptly finish.
SATOKO FUJII MIN-YOH ENSEMBLE: ‘JAZZ EM AGOSTO’,
FOUNDATION CALOUSTE GULBENKIAN, LISBON, 02/08/2008.
Portugal’s ‘Jazz Em Agosto’ festival is a very good thing. Having caught a screening of Hans Hylkema and Thiery Bruneau’s 1991 film on Eric Dolphy, ‘Last Date’, I made my way over the small modern-day amphitheatre, set just opposite the Centre of Modern Art in the grounds of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. In the next few days, concert-goers could look forward to John Zorn in duet with Fred Frith, Brotzmann’s Chicago Tentet, Sylvie Courvoisier, Taylor Ho Bynum, and Barre Philips.
On this night, it was the turn of pianist Satoko Fujii, fronting a quartet which was evenly split between Americans and Japanese: Fujji and her husband Natsuki Tamura, trombonist Curtis Hasselbring, and accordionist/ electronics whiz Andrea Parkins. The music varied widely, opening with a free jazz burst, then fading to moments when the music all but turned to silence, piano whisperings barely head beneath an incessant cicada buzz, a strong breeze, and low-flying aircraft overhead. The outdoor location undoubtedly helped add to the music’s atmosphere, emphasizing the delicacy of these quiet moments as they serendipitously meshed with environmental sounds. Fujii aimed at enhancing the texture through the sporadic deployment of prepared piano, as did Parkins, with her control of foot pedals allowing the accordion to sound almost like a dislocated, disturbed organ. Hasselbring was a worthy soloist too, providing jazzier articulations while around him backgrounds kept on changing, as if he was an actor in front of an aural blue-screen. It was Nakamura, though, who was for me the most impressive musician on the night, his solos filled with broken notes and stuttering cries, hesitant yet authoritative dramatic monologues causing an intense focusing in of my listening. They asked for, and rewarded close attention.
The band consistently focused on ‘inside-outside’ articulations, building on antitheses and contrasts: silence and noise / starting and stopping / ensemble and solo / east and west / voice and electronics. In itself, that’s not an automatic recommendation (many contemporary bands tread similar tightropes); perhaps most interesting were the ethnic twists and resonances resulting from the unusual instrumental line-up and the way it was employed. Thus, the accordion, with its European folk music associations, met with Fujji’s rippling, ‘classically-trained’ Steinway sounds, and, towards the end, her vocalizations of traditional Japanese folk songs (‘Min Yoh’ is the Japanese for ‘folk music’). Such dimensions can be fascinating, yet this was not a lengthy concert by any means, and perhaps one of those experiences that one appreciates and enjoys, without being consistently drawn in, consistently engaged. Still, this band is just one of the worthwhile enterprises in which Fujji’s involved, and the gig was a nice opportunity to see her at work.
(All gig reviews for this issue by David Grundy)