Album launch: Kenny Wheeler Mirrors – 25 May 2013

An excited full house at Hall One, Kings Place on 25 May 2013.  We were there for the launch of Kenny Wheeler’s Mirrors,  his settings of poems by Stevie Smith, Lewis Carroll and WB Yeates, with vocals by Norma Winstone and the London Vocal Project.   My anticipation was sharpened by a  pre-concert talk by Pete Churchill.  In a short, perceptive and enjoyable talk we learned that Kenny writes deceptively easy music within complex chords, that he allows his musicians freedom to destroy his work, that he creates order out of chaos and madness.   Like a swan serenely gliding by, we are unaware of the energy and strength beneath that swan.  We learned that sad songs make him happy.  And indeed you are constantly teased in this work by the airy voices of the choir, sounding so Sixties and optimistic, contrasting with lyrics rife with loss, death and mourning.   How masterly.

So, briefed with his insight, we listened and were rewarded with a glorious performance of Mirrors in its entirety,  played without interval.   The vast London Vocal Project, led very subtly by Pete Churchill from the far side of the stage, sounded dazzling, the result of five years singing together.   Their light and young voices, and obvious love of the music, perfectly enunciated the profound, and at times, quite mad, lyrics.  Everyone from the album was there, except James Maddren, replaced by the always reliable Martin France on drums.   The sound was perfect, so flawless you didn’t have to think about it.

At centre stage, the slight modest figure of Kenny, flanked by Mark Lockheart on saxophones, Nikki Iles on piano and Norma Winstone.  All put in bravura, moving performances, Kenny especially so, rising from his chair on at least two occasions to acknowledge our applause, his fragile notes floating in the air.  It was a very special, poignant, evening that matched the promise and rewards of the album.  There was a real buzz at Kings Place afterwards, as if people did not want the evening to end.

Mirrors by Kenny Wheeler with Norma Winstone and the London Vocal Project is available from Edition Records 

Launch and album review: Maciek Pysz Trio – Insight – released May 2013

Maciek Pysz is a Polish guitarist and composer joined on Insight by longstanding partners Asaf Sirkis on percussion and Yuri Goloubev on double bass. The album comprises eight compositions and arrangements by Maciek and one with Gianluca Corona. The sleeve notes make clear that many of the intricate compositions were born out of imagining (or experiencing) loneliness or loss, but also wonder at the world and its beauty. They are very personal, we get an insight into Maciek’s life and thoughts. And the output we hear is the result of five years playing together and it is world class.

On the sleeve of Insight, insight is defined as “the act… of understanding the inner nature of things or of seeing intuitively”. So at the launch of the album last night (22 May 2013) at The Forge in London, I was interested in seeing how this idea would be conveyed. The cover shows Maciek with eyes closed, in contemplation or meditation. Yet it would be impossible to perform in a trio if you were wrapt in yourself. So in performance, Maciek’s eyes smile with pleasure, Yuri’s are focussed on his music stand with the occasional flick of eyelids to communicate approval or wry amusement, and Asaf keeps his eyes closed most of the time (like many drummers) except when waving an arm at Yuri or Maciek as if to say “Wow!”

It was an evening to gasp, not just at Maciek’s breathtaking skills, conjuring the most delicate sounds out of steel and nylon wire, nor at Yuri’s serene arco playing on his double bass with antique patina, or Asaf’s magical patter on the udu drum or beats so fast and hard they sounded like firecrackers. You gasped because it sounded fluent and effortless, and because it made you feel so happy. An album launch should always be a joyful occasion but this one felt particularly so, there were many Polish people there, at least half of whom were women (yes, rare at jazz) and Maciek’s father present to crown it all. At one stage a small group near the stage moved as if to dance, and really that would have been most appropriate, it was hard to keep in your seat.

We had a few minutes of unaccompanied guitar in Recuerdos de la Alhambra (the classical piece by Francisco Tárrega). And a new composition called Tangella ( to the tango) which is not on the album. I think we heard all the album tracks with a bonus of hearing the eponymous title as an encore (at a slower tempo) as well as earlier in the set list. The sound was beautifully balanced, you could hear fingers on strings, delicate jingles of bells around Asaf’s ankles. The album has a similarly gorgeous sound being recorded, mixed and mastered by Stephano Amerio. Highly recommended.

Maciek is performing with this trio at Kings Place on Saturday 14 September 2013.

Maciek Pysz
Maciek Pysz, acoustic and classical guitars
Asaf Sirkis, percussion
Yuri Goloubev, double bass

Insight is available from

CD review: Alexi Tuomarila Trio – Seven Hills – released June 2013

There was a very strong likelihood that the Finnish pianist Alexi Tuomarila could have become a professional tennis player had he not discovered Miles Davis and gone on to study in Brussels where he won many prizes. Those tennis essentials – gracefulness, nimble footwork, sensitivity to the moment and delicacy of touch – are abundantly apparent here in Alexi’s sparkling touch.  I imagine a Roger Federer performance, no pressure visible, feet (or fingers) skimming the ground, elegant changes of direction like a swallow in flight. When Alexi’s career hit a dark patch, titles such as Bone Yard Jive and My Dark Hours hint at the desolation within but now, on Edition Records, he returns to dazzling sunlight with this beautiful album. His playing is breathtaking, it is cool and Scandinavian yet warm and intimate,  a density of notes yet never heavy.  I keep wanting to use the adjective sparkling but that’s what this album is, every track dazzles you with wonder.

He is joined by Mats Eilertsen on bass (Tord Gustavsen Trio and Mats’ own bands, most recently on the exquisite Sails Set) and Olavi Louhivuori on drums (leader of Oddarrang amongst other excellent projects), and on a couple of tracks by Portuguese guitar player André Fernandes. Alexi’s trio have played together before, on his Constellation (2006), well-titled, a pitch for the heavens that he has now reached in Seven Hills.

There are very strong melodies, some hymn-like (Miss), others have a Monk-tinge (Visitor Q), all demonstrate perfect understanding between this trio. The guitar seems to be used (on Prologue and Ceremony) to set up tension,the drums contorted like thunder, but always the piano brings us back to serenity. On Jibeinia, we have the delicate tracery of an extinct fossil bird, a feathered dinosaur set out in Mats’ bass, the piano wistfully trilling a possible call for this long-gone creature.

All the tracks are standout. but I must draw attention to Cyan by Olavi where the trio is at its most etheral. It could be a lullaby for a sleepy child or the remembrance of a perfect summer day, the drums are like rustling silk.

I saw Alexi with this trio earlier in the year at Warwick Arts Centre. We can only hope Alexi tours the UK soon, more people need to experience his sublimely contemplative intensity for themselves. Game, Set and Match to Mr Tuomarila.

Alexi Tuomarila
Alexi Tuomarila, piano
Mats Eilertsen, double bass
Olavi Louhivuori, drums
André Fernandes, guitar

Seven Hill is available from Edition Records and other places

Review – Cheltenham Jazz Festival 3-6 May 2013

One week on, Cheltenham Jazz Festival still glows in my mind, it was extraordinary on so many counts: the crowds who filled every cranny of the festival site; the buzz at every gig, whether for established artists like Gregory Porter or newcomers with colossal confidence like George Montague; the intimacy of the Parabola; the masterclasses and interviews, but most of all, the truly moving and touchingly modest performances. Not modest in delivery of course, we had world class sounds, but self effacing and genuine when met, fleetingly, after a gig or seen around the festival.

I found myself with tears in my eyes on several occasions. First was Gregory Porter and his St Nick’s Pub Band from Harlem. Did his band ever think they would tour the world, could they believe their luck? Clearly at home in the Big Top, and with an adoring audience, his new song No Love Dying is stunning. Surely this is his next Grammy nomination? In a masterclass Gregory told us he was an optimist, that he took the symbols of death – broken mirrors, birds in the house, drooping flowers in a vase – and flipped them so they were about life and love. Whether heard in a huge venue or a tiny tent, this song has the power to affect. Here it is performed backstage at Cheltenham:

Then came folk singer Heather Masse with Dave Douglas. When simple hymns and folk tunes are sung well they really strike home, go straight to the heart. I loved Heather’s haunting delicacy in Be Still my Soul, a favourite hymn of Dave’s mother, and supported by Dave’s infectious joy of performance and sharing. It’s not just the words that move

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change, He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heavenly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

It was Dave’s haunting trumpet which transported us beyond a vale of tears to something we can smile about through those tears.

Finally was Marius Neset’s performance in a sublime evening gig with the Edition Quartet. Yes, we had all been blown away by him the previous evening with his quartet’s performance of the album of the year, Birds. The sheer physicality and power of Marius’s blowing leaves you breathless, exhilarated. Here is a short clip, filmed by Olivia Dickeson, for Edition Records, leaving you in no doubt about his prowess:

But on Saturday night we saw another Marius (last glimpsed in Flight by Dave Stapleton at St George’s Brandon Hill last year), unexpectedly fragile, human, reflective. Just as a Michelangelo sculpture moves us as its strength appears out of simple form (I am thinking of his unfinished Slaves here), so Marius has the same effect on me. The Edition Quartet is a perfect ensemble – Dave Stapleton on piano, Neil Yates on trumpet, Daniel Herskedal on tuba and Marius on saxophones. Dave’s masterpiece Flight took on a new life in this smaller ensemble, the tuba adding an unexpected eeriness.

At Cheltenham I expected to be entertained, I knew I would probably laugh at witticisms (several false ends in Kit Downes’s new composition, The General in a staggering, hugely enjoyable Troyk-estra), gasp at virtuosity again and again, be challenged and made to think, but my abiding memory is being touched by simple words, heartfelt performances, unforgettable melodies, haunting fragile sounds. And that’s what I love most about jazz.