Gigs and albums of 2012, a fan’s eye view…

I have tried in my mind’s eye to visualise an order to my list of gigs and albums of the year, and I can’t do it! There is no way of rationally ranking the many hours of sitting in theatres, halls, tents and pubs. All are precious to me.

Here are just a few of my happiest memories of gigs this year, in no particular order:

Gregory Porter at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival – a glorious voice and a performer who genuinely reaches out to the audience with an almost child-like pleasure.

Marius Neset standing on the stage at St Georges Brandon Hill during the first performance of Flight by Dave Stapleton and visibly relishing the wonderful acoustic.

That same gig, the buzz of the audience in the interval, no-one talking about getting a drink, everyone saying “This is amazing”. It was.

A very hot day in May and the launch of Phronesis’ Walking Dark at Kings Place. Such a joyful, relaxed evening in a lovely hall and shared with friends.

And albums of the year that mean the most to me?

Tracks that keep going through my head:

  • That Syncing Feeling from Yatra by Ivo Neame
  • Holland from Where do you start? by Brad Mehldau

People seen for the first time who made a big impression:

  • Tigran
  • Josh Arcoleo

Bands I want to see next year:

  • World Service Project – all credit to them for their pioneering pan-European collaborations and their sense of fun!
  • Roller Trio – have heard so much about them, now want to see them

My last jazz of 2012 will be Phronesis at Oxford on 1 December. They are my favourite trio and I thank them for the joy and richness they bring to my life.

Review: John Law Trio, QEH,17 Nov 2012, London Jazz Festival

When I reviewed John Law’s Three Leaps of the Gazelle earlier this year I really hoped I could see him live so I could thank him for his beautiful music. So it was a no-brainer to book to see him, even in a festival where we were faced with agonising choices, where so many acts clashed in the schedule. John’s performance at the London Jazz Festival goes down as one of my highlights of the festival. He joked that he had performed at the Purcell Room, now the QEH, would it be the Royal Festival Hall next? Well, why not? He has a stellar trio with Asaf Sirkis on percussion and Yuri Goloubev on bass. Yuri was the surprise to me – his diffident seated stance disguising absolutely extraordinary command of his bass, particularly in Three Part Invention and Finger on the Pulse.

The trio played compositions from Three Leaps of the Gazelle but deepened them with more obvious and daring electronics, making the most of the perfect piano and the vast space. So Insistence which starts gently with crickets (the insect) quickly became darker and sinister. It is easy to take John’s wonderful playing for granted, the tunes flow so naturally, the colours and pace are so varied, it looks effortless. Three Part Invention allowed Asaf to play full blast with a stunning solo. This was a lovely contrast to his earlier delicate brushwork sounding like a small animal running in the snow in Counting Snowflakes. By now the full house was gripped, the twiddly electronics, the piano like an irregularly dripping tap, the magical sounds of the glockenspiel and the beautiful tune had us all remembering childhood Christmases when we did indeed watch individual snowflakes. And it wasn’t only the audience who were moved – several times Asaf or John waved a hand at Yuri as if to say ” Oh my goodness, just listen to this guy tonight, he is inspired”. And yes, he was, they all were. The electronics really made it – they weren’t just another extraordinary piano trio (we had that with Brad Mehldau earlier in the week), they were being daring, and it paid off. If the audience had just come to see Egberto Gismondi then they came away with having seen an amazing set from John.

I have a feeling that Three Leaps of the Gazelle is going to be in my top 5 albums of this year and this live performance convinces me of this. This was a gig where I would have welcomed a second set.

BBC Radio3 Jazz Line-Up 10 Nov 2012 – being there…

Three gigs in one, could you ask for more? Jazz Line-up at the Clore Ballroom, Southbank Centre offered us three very different short sets, each giving us an insight into the creative process that you don’t usually get in a live performance. The first, from Aruán Ortiz, a Cuban pianist whose quintet included Michael Janisch on bass and Greg Osby on saxophone was a fairly uncompromising upbeat set which felt very New York to me with its hard driving grooves. Just the thing to warm us up. The band keep in touch by Skype which must be an interesting way to rehearse when you are on different continents.

Then came pianist Tigran Hamasyan who divides his time between New York and Paris. His La Petite Esperance moved me greatly, I was captivated in an instant, sat forward in my seat holding my breath, I heard his home country of Armenia, gentle folk melodies, mourning for a lost way of life. It wasn’t just technique, there was such depth of feeling. I knew I had just heard a pianist who will be as great as Brad Mehldau. The busy Clore Ballroom went silent, rivetted by this slight figure hunched over the piano. Then he played an improvised piece with piano, voice, xylophone and electronics. Then What the waves brought combined piano, whistling and voice. Babies squealed in the crowd but we were transported to his native land-locked country for just a few minutes. He tried to get us to clap in the most difficult rhythm imaginable, we all failed dismally, raising my already soaring respect for drummers. He told us that he had a great respect for Armenian poetry which certainly added to the romance of La Petite Esperance.

Finally, Oddarrang from Finland, part of the Sound of Finland series. I reviewed Oddarrang’s Cathedral earlier this year here and I was really keen to see how their beautifully mixed, subtle sound with electronics would hold up in the ballroom. I need not have worried, the mix of instruments – guitars, cello, trombone, voice, drums and piano, and electronics stood up perfectly, the quiet bits silenced the crowd near the bar. We were treated to the UK premier of Self Portrait which started so quietly and then became very loud. It’s about a film called Self Portrait. Olavi explained that Finland is a quiet country, where silence is the default so it was inevitable that his music would have lovely delicate long spaces. People stayed in their seats for the 6pm set with Oddarrang, there was a real buzz of anticipation – Finland no longer seemed a gloomy country if it could create such magical sounds. We had loud sounds too – a rather frightening, menacing new track that they played in the 6pm set. There were noises like nails on a blackboard (ouch), deep rumblings and ghost-like sounds, and at one stage all the musicians appeared to be twiddling with knobs on gadgets! It bodes very well for their next album which will be released on Edition Records in August 2013.

We knew we were at a recording for radio as we had to applaud on request for sound levels. That wasn’t hard as we’d had an extremely good afternoon. After the gig I heard Kevin LeGendre tell a friend that he thought Olavi’s piano trio of ten years ago was one of the best he’d heard in Europe! And this was just my first gig of the London Jazz Festival 2012. It’s already top-notch, it can’t get better than this can it?

In praise of…Jim Hart

Jim Hart, vibraphonist, composer, band leader and drummer was nominated in the Downbeat Readers Poll 2012, a rare and deserved honour for a British musician. Gary Giddins says there are two types of vibe player – cool or extrovert. He has forgotten the third type that Jim represents – the fun, almost-surprised-at-his-own-success but quietly-confident-all-the-same very English vibes player. Whether you are lucky enough to see him live or listen to his albums, you are always capitivated.

I first saw Jim as a drummer with Alcyona Mick at a free gig at the Herbert at the greatly missed Coventry Jazz Festival in 2007. He was impressive then. Most recently I saw him on 25 October, again on drums, with Sam Crowe in the lovely surroundings of St Georges Brandon Hill and again I was struck by his effortless quality, he barely moves his arms when drumming, the sticks seem to take on a life of their own. This was a starry gig – Sam Crowe Group and the return to the live scene of Kairos 4tet. Jim subbed for Dave Smith with the Sam Crowe Group. We had lots of new, fairly abstract material from Sam, eagerly lapped up by a local crowd, and Sam was generous to allow space for the other musicians to explore his complex tunes. It was a joyous evening, everyone was pleased to see Adam Waldmann back on stage after his operation. Jim gave an amazing solo which sounded like a clanging American train.

But it is his vibes playing that Downbeat have chosen to celebrate. And is there anything more magical than watching someone play the vibes? The very sound conjures up your childhood xylophone from a Christmas long ago or the thrill of an African balafon played in the hot sun. It’s Jim’s vibes that adds the sparkly quality I love in Ivo Neame’s Caught in the Light of Day ( see my review of that album here).

This summer Jim took his Cloudmakers Trio on tour and I caught them at Cheltenham in July. Cloudmakers consists of Michael Janisch on double bass, Dave Smith on drums and Jim on vibraphone. I’d seen Dave with Outhouse Ruhabi in 2008, a collaboration with Gambian drummers, so I wasn’t surprised to hear some African influences in Cloudmakers. I think all the compositions we heard that night were by Jim apart from some amazing Monk and a George Shearing tune. I particularly remember a very lovely tune called Westbound ( about travelling home to Jim’s native Cornwall, and as I am from Cornwall too, I paid particular attention). It was a very romantic tune and I hope Jim records it so I can hear it again.

We hear the African influence again in Morbid Curiosity on his latest album The Cloudmakers Trio with Ralph Alessi, Live at the Pizza Express, released September 2012. The trumpet of Ralph Alessi is feather light, the perfect foil for Jim’s delicate vibes. The bass is light as are the drums. It is a very sophisticated sound, perfect for intimate venues.

We hear Jim again, as composer and vibraphonist, on Neon Quartet’s Subjekt (released November 2012 on Edition Records). A particularly beautiful track is Springs and Neaps composed by Jim. The combination of Stan Sultzmann’s lyrical sax, the floating piano/organ by Kit Downes and Tim Giles’ sensitive drumming are the perfect setting for Jim’s effortless, gentle landscape. Does this tune describe a spring evening in a Cornish estuary, perhaps the Fal, when the tide is rushing in over beds of early spring flowers? A lovely sight and sound.

This magical world is just one of the reasons why I want to praise Jim Hart.

Cloudmakers Trio with Ralph Alessi available on