Review: Jazz meets science at Cheltenham Science Festival, 15-16 June 2012

Hot on the heels of Cheltenham Jazz Festival comes the Science Festival and for one event at the latter, you might wonder which you were attending.   But as I thought about it, the parallels between the effort needed to publish a scientific paper and have it critiqued, and possibly disproved, by fellow scientists is rather similar to the process a musician goes through in composition and the subsequent search for a label – sometimes he’s successful, at other times, his work stays locked away on his laptop heard by no-one.  In both cases, there is rigour and a desire for perfection. Order appears out of chaos.

Cross-fertilization between the Cheltenham festivals is becoming more and more interesting.  In 2005  Markus Stockhausen was commissioned to write “Sowieso” as a jazz piece and then rework it for the classically oriented Music Festival.   Last year the Wellcome Trust funded LabOratory  – a series of events bringing bio-medical science to all four Cheltenham Festivals.  And in this crucible, Animation Migration was forged last year and reworked in the comfortable, acoustic venue of The Parabola this weekend.

Animation Migration is a short work combining jazz, animation and science (DNA in particular) performed by the Kit Downes Quintet, to animation by Lesley Barnes and science input by geneticist Adam Rutherford. The animation was exquisite, triangles in beautiful subtle shades of yellow, turquoise, pink, green, red and orange combined in balletic grace to tell us the story of evolution from the first cells and tiny creepy things to birds and dinosaurs and finally to man (and many lovely images in between).  And then the story ran backwards very rapidly, suggesting that maybe we aren’t the pinnacle of evolution.

As Kit told us, he saw parallels between evolution from the last universal common ancestor and jazz – for in jazz, chaos is often built into the design. Jazz is about improvisation, the end isn’t always known, one idea builds on another. He absorbed much of his science lesson with Adam to build the work around a small motif of 4 notes, and Lesley used 4 squares to parallel the four bases of the DNA code.

Kit knew we were watching the animation as well as listening.  I found it quite difficult to do both at once, I know that a very large part of my brain is needed to absorb jazz and there wasn’t enough left over for the visuals for me. The music was arresting at times – the blood-curdling shrieks of the tyrannosaurus rex amusingly rendered by James Allsopp on bass clarinet, the gentle flight of early birds in the cello of Lucy Railton.  There was a dreamtime feel to the whole piece.  And as the story ran backwards faster and faster,  the music got faster and faster, and we held our breath to see if the music and the animation would end together – and they did!

We had a bonus of three new animations and compositions – The Brain Cells; I didn’t see it coming; and Quiet Tiger.  And yes, if the tiger looked familiar, he was – he’s on the cover of Kit’s Quiet Tiger album from 2011.  These new works were equally beautiful if slightly disturbing. Horsemen riding wild beasts through endless forests.  I wasn’t sure what it was about but it was vivid and arresting, and the music was freer.  I wish we had heard more about how Lesley made the animation but maybe not knowing added to the magic.  These pieces will certainly grow, or should I say, evolve.

You get a flavour of the animation here from the 2011 performance.

Animation Migration lineup:
Kit Downes – Piano
Lesley Barnes – Animations
Calum Gourlay – Bass
James Maddren – Drums
Lucy Railton – Cello
James Allsopp – Bass Clarinet

Review: Asaf Sirkis Trio, Cheltenham Everyman, 11 June 2012 and some thoughts on guitars

I knew Asaf Sirkis’ drumming from a favourite album of mine – John Law’s ‘Congregation’. So it was great to see him live twice in one week – with Geoff Eales’ Isorhythm at Stratford Jazz on 3 June and with his own Trio on 11 June (line-ups below).  In both cases I was not disappointed and found myself enjoying the gigs far more than I’d expected. I was initially wary of Isorhythm with its electric basses, fretless and otherwise.  So why was I moved by these 2 gigs?   I mentioned my reaction to guitarist Carl Orr (of Isorhythm) afterwards and he said “We put our hearts and soul into this, it’s not as easy as it looks”.  There were tunes that remained with you the next morning. We knew we were in for something special when we saw Asaf silently drumming on a bar table before the gig.

Asaf’s Trio consists of a bass guitar, guitar and his drums.  They played 10 compositions, all by Asaf.  The gig started with Chennai Dream, with delicate riffs on the guitars, gentle tunes and drumming that held it all together. You are always aware of Asaf, whether he has his eyes tightly closed or when he beams encouragement to his band, he is very much a leader.    Is this really the same drummer who plays so gently with John Law?  Well yes, and he’s mesmerising. It’s not just technique, it’s something spiritual, a ferocious intellect combined with deep feeling.

I was gripped when they got to Other Stars and Planets which took us on a rocket trip, maybe it was Telstar with crackle and static, it worked as well as the harmonica version of the same track. The evening was beautifully paced – a delicate rendition of Lady of the Lake (which put paid to my silly notion that electric guitars are always loud) was followed by the extraordinarily looped and  thunderous Meditation and complex but accessible Letting Go.  I was moved by Ima about his Mother (with drums like distant thunder) and Waltz for Rehovot (his home town in Israel). I could see the landscape, feel his sense of rootedness to it. The set ended with Life Itself, inspired by the late Tony Williams.

So just 4 hours at two gigs has changed my view of guitars in jazz for ever. Thank you Geoff and Asaf!

Geoff Eales Isorhythm:

Geoff Eales – keyboards

Ben Waghorn ( various reeds)

Carl Orr ( guitar)

Fred T Baker ( fretless bass)

Asaf Sirkis ( drums)


Asaf Sirkis  Trio:

Asaf Sirkis ( drums)

Tassos Spiliotopoulos ( guitar)

Yaron Stavi (electric bass)