Category Archives: Review

Miles Ahead – a film by Don Cheadle

Miles Davis is the jazz superstar. It’s remarkable that there’s never been a biopic before. But wait – this very definitelyMiles is always cool isn’t a biopic. Director and lead Don Cheadle has been very clear about that from the start. Anyone coming to this film and expecting a cool-fest of decorative advertising images with A Kind of Blue soundtrack will be very disappointed.

Miles Ahead ploughs a very different furrow. It’s said that ten years ago Miles’ nephew Vince Wilburn told Don Cheadle that only he could play Davis in any film of his life, and now – thanks to crowdfunding through Indiegogo – it’s happened. Cheadle has said I want to tell a story that Miles himself would have wanted to see, something hip, cool, alive and AHEAD. 

don cheadle as miles 02So – does the film deliver? In some ways, yes it does. This is Cheadle’s directorial debut and it’s a visually arresting one. He’s taken what Ian Carr in his excellent biography calls ‘the Silent Years’, when Davis was holed up in his Queens apartment unable to play. When Cheadle flashes back to earlier periods (for example, the recording of Sketches of Spain with Gil Evans or Miles’ fascination with boxing and black world champion Jack Johnson) we’re gripped by the authenticity.  Cheadle creates a completely believable Miles – angry, frustrated, washed up and ready to quit music.

miles davis jack johnsonAnd the music! There’s no reliance on hackneyed ersatz coolness: instead Cheadle confidently lets the film buzz with the best of Davis’ music from the 1970s and 1980s. We get to hear Back Seat Betty, Go Ahead, John (which turns out to be perfect car chase music) and Prelude from Agharta. This is adventurous stuff, and as a result the film throbs with a visceral tension that’s delivered by the pacey direction and this powerful score.

So what’s wrong? Cheadle has admitted that the only reason the film was fully financed was because he agreed to have a white co-star. Enter the MacGuffin that is Ewan McGregor as Dave Braden, Rolling Stone reporter – and the stolen tapes of a Davis studio session. Enter Starsky and Hutch car chases, Miles firing shots at his Coludon cheadle as miles 03mbia record boss and night club police beatings. No – hang on, that last one really did happen. And here’s another problem: there’s so much in this eventful life that could have been the basis of a much more credible plot. With this, and Cheadle’s startingly original direction and central performance, the result would have been a five star film. As it is, go and see this Miles Ahead. You may be disappointed, but you’ll come away with a wholly believable snapshot of the most important musician of the 20th century.

Wayne Shorter Quartet – London Barbican 08 Oct 2011

Well, where to start? The problem with the enigma that is Wayne Shorter is how to talk about much that is both loose and tight, spontaneously improved and painstakingly written. The answer might be to begin with what Shorter’s late partner Joe Zawinul said about their group Weather Report – “We always solo and we never solo.” That’s what it felt like listening to this remakable quartet performance.

At 78, Shorter should be thinking about what good buddhists do and retreating to a mountain hilltop somewhere. Instead, over the last ten years he’s been working with the tightest rhythm section in jazz (Brian Blade and John Patitucci) and Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez who adds his shards of twisted latin rhythms and harmonic invention to Shorter’s own asymmetric compositions.

The quartet began with Shorter laconically undecided about participating at all (or so it seemed): trace elements of a composition picked up and then thrown aside while Perez invented tiny melodies and rhythms and Patitucci and Blade traded licks. We waited and wondered.

But suddenly it all came clear – Shorter (rather surprisingly) switched to soprano and took off with Lotus, a piece comissioned by the Philadelphia Musuem of Art and apparently inspired by their pan-Asian collection. Shorter was magnificent – that clear, keening soprano shriek created new structures out of some edgily familiar music – a version of She Moved Through the Fair and a fantastic take on the old Weather Report tune Plaza Real. And can you believe for a second rapturous encore a spikily engaging version of Fred Astaire’s Flying Down to Rio? Shorter’s purity of tone, wit and invention teased out the tune, then forensically picked it part before putting the whole thing back together as a Wayne Shorter original.

This wasn’t part of the upcoming London Jazz Festival but audiences for that will be hard-pressed to see anything which matches Shorter’s dazzling virtuosity backed by his  his stunning quartet.

“Life is so mysterious, to me,” says Shorter. “I can’t stop at any one thing to say, ‘Oh, this is what it is.’ And I think it’s always becoming, always becoming. That’s the adventure. And imagination is part of that adventure.” And – yes – that’s just about the size of it.

Best of 2010

As in 2009, our Best of 2010 features the same eclectic mix that characterizes the show each week. We don’t have a prearranged playlist and we have always played whatever we like. As we noted in the 2009 review, “jazz is about how the music feels and sounds rather than whether it meets any restricted definition of what jazz might or might not be.” Each of these releases feature music we will come back to again and again in 2011.

So let’s start at the top. For me, the most outstanding jazz release of the year has to be Charles Lloyd’s career-defining Mirror. It’s an enigmatic title for an uncharacteristically straightforward trawl through old favourites like The Water is Wide, some quirky new covers like Brian Wilson’s Caroline, No and –for the first time on a Lloyd album – Tagi, a spoken word meditation on life and philosophy. What makes the album so successful is Lloyd’s current quartet, a line-up that is so symbiotically welded to Lloyd’s understanding of what he wants from the music that we hear perfection at almost every turn of this ECM disc. Jason Moran, Reuben Rogers and Eric Harland are the perfect foils to Lloyd’s tone which just exudes warmth and gravitas in equal measure.

Second up is the third outing for Phronesis, the trio led by bassist Jasper Hoiby. Alive is indeed a live recording from the Forge Arts Centre in Camden, London. All tracks are by Hoiby and the beautifully recorded bass led tunes feature terrific interplay between the leader and stand-in drummer Mark Guiliana. Have a listen to Eight Hours for a taste of this Edition Records home-grown triumph.

A discovery for me in 2010 has been the music of pianist Marc Cary. He first came to my attention through the website Breath of Life (check it out via the Cosmic Jazz link). His range is similar to that of another CJ favourite, Robert Glasper – a mix of eclectic cover choices with groove led workouts on his trio recordings together with some Fender Rhodes touches and – with other groups – rap and spoken word elements too. This year Focus Trio Live 2009 on Motema Music showcased his own compositions alongside standards like Round Midnight and Jackie McLean’s Minor March. Well worth a listen – if you can find it.

Music from Brazil continues to enthrall us with its range and diversity – perhaps not surprisingly with a population of 193 million, who all appear to have music in their soul. Several great compilations of new music appeared in 2010 including a Oi! A Nova Musica Brasileira – a double CD collection of music representing everything from manguebeat and brega (check them out on Wikipedia) to hiphop and rap. Nothing specifically jazzy in there but we particularly liked Jam da Silva’s homage to Manu Dibango, Mania. We also played new music from Rosalia de Souza, Rosa Passos and Estatica – the latest from on-form bossa hipster Marcos Valle.

Rumours of the death of the 12in single have been much exaggerated and we have enjoyed great new music on this format over the last year, including some great takes on Herbie Hancock’s classic Chameleon from Makoto and Kez YM. You can find this on Nik Weston’s Mukatsuku Records. Staying with Japan, Jacob – our regular sometime-Tokyo based adviser on such things – has continued to delight us with surprises from this country’s diverse music scene including producer Nujabes (aka Jun Seba) who was tragically killed in 2010 and whose track The Final View heavily samples Yusef Lateef’s Love Theme from Spartacus. This track came up again this year when NY jazz star Vijay Iyer suggested we play it in our show featuring the most beautiful tunes in jazz.

We could easily have chosen just about anything from Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden’s Jasmine – this ECM album is reflective, personal and tender – just as you might expect from this pairing. Jarrett is controlled and delicate while Haden’s trademark sonorities bring depth and a quiet grandeur to what could easily be dismissed as first division dinner party music. There are some surprises though – an interesting take on Randy Crawford’s One Day I’ll Fly Away, for example – but start with their take on the standard For All We Know and you won’t go wrong.

It didn’t feature in many ‘best of…’ round ups, but we rate Christian Scott’s latest album for Concord Jazz, Yesterday You Said Tomorrow. Scott’s breathy tone on trumpet is well matched to the chordal smears of guitarist Matthew Stevens and the production from Blue Note veteran Rudy Van Gelder is spot on. Scott’s trumpet sound owes something to Scandinavians Arve Henriksen and Nils Petter Molvaer and we reckon that immersion in this more atmospheric, ambient tonal world will continue to feature in the development of the trumpet in jazz. Quiet Inlet, the latest release from Ian Ballamy’s Food project actually featured Molvaer adding his customary glacial tones to some tracks and Last Night the Moon Came Dropping its Clothes in the Street (also on ECM) from ambient trumpeter Jon Hassell evoked a similar soundworld. The quietly insistent collages on both albums show a clear 21st century direction for jazz.

We played much from Gilles Peterson’s latest compilation of his favourite tracks from the Italian Horo label including the intriguing Nuraghi from Santucci Scoppa and Enrico Pieranunzi’s modal Polychrome among the more familiar sounds of Roy Haynes and Steve Grossman. It would have been good to have devoted as much time to another labour of love on BGP Records from fellow DJ Dean Rudland but the three copies of this album we bought (yes – we buy all our music!) suffered from pressing faults. This anthology of the best of the Mainstream label had many treasures, including Frank Foster’s title track The Loud Minority and Blue Mitchell’s Mr Hermano. Both albums come highly recommended.

Much was expected at Cosmic Jazz Towers of Brad Mehldau’s epic Highway Rider but our view is that it delivers few surprises. Saxophonist Joshua Redman plays safe throughout and, whilst the orchestral arrangements are ambitious, the whole project doesn’t seem to deliver the promised grandeur. Similarly, our thoughts on Esperanza Spalding’s much-touted Chamber Music Society were also mixed – but maybe we need to give it another listen.

For something really adventurous, have a listen to William Parker’s I Plan to Stay a Believer which features the songs of Curtis Mayfield. Parker says that “every song written or improvised has an inside song which lives in the shadows, in between the sounds and silences and behind the words, pulsating, waiting to be reborn as a new song” and some of these versions are just that. This 2CD release is undoubtedly indulgent and overblown, with many of these ‘inside songs’ checking in at 15 minutes and more, but there are some terrific moments – including the title track and a spellbinding version of Freddie’s Dead. Much of this is due to vocalist Leena Conquest whose gospelly tones add real depth to Mayfield’s impassioned lyrics.

Reissue of the year had to be the deluxe edition of Bitches Brew, the seminal Miles Davis album that we featured in several shows as we celebrated the 40th anniversary of its release. Including the original vinyl on 180g discs, a sumptuous book of photographs, a CD of the 1970 concert at Tanglewood alongside a DVD of a previously unissued Copenhagen show from 1969, this heayweight package was the perfect way to enjoy again this justified classic. If you’re on a tight budget, go for the 3CD pack – it’s still a bargain.

A far less ambitious project was the one CD collection of complete quartet recordings from another trumpeter, the always thoughtful Booker Little. Dead from kidney failure at just 23, Little was a trumpet innovator who endlessly practiced his craft, honing his sound and challenging his technical ability with every performance. Check out The Complete Quartet Recordings on Jazz Plot for a taste of what might have been.

We also spent more time with some of ECM’s austere white boxed sets – the set of three early Arild Andersen albums collectively called Green in Blue revealed their delights slowly but listening to the evolution of the quartet across the 1970s is fascinating.  Honourable mentions must go to another ECM white box, the 3CD set of Eberhard Weber albums collectively titled Colours (but confusingly not including the ground-breaking Colours of Chloe), a live rarity from influential 80s collective Loose Tubes – Dancing on Frith Street – and Windmill Tilter, Kenny Wheeler/John Dankworth’s ode to Don Quixote.

Other music we’ve enjoyed over the year included Django Bates’ wacky tribute to Charlie Parker, Beloved Bird, another fine collaboration on Strut Records from veteran Lloyd Miller and the Heliocentrics, Erik Truffaz’s patchy but ambitious 3CD set Rendezvous, Nat Birchall’s Coltrane-like Guiding Spirit and The New Emancipation, a typically ambitious fusing of jazz, rap and nu-soul from Soweto Kinch. We played tracks from all these albums over the year.

Concert of 2010 for me had to be the Robert Glasper/Terence Blanchard double bill at the inspiring London Jazz Festival along with – of course – Charles Lloyd’s set at the same event.

I missed the recent buzz on what is my hottest tip for the big time in 2011 – and that’s Darcy James Argue’s revolutionary take on the big band called The Secret Society. Infernal Machines, their album of 2009, is – well, something else. I’ll be playing music from this truly amazing release over coming weeks.
Enjoy your end of year jazz – and see you in 2011 for more adventures on the Cosmic Jazz journey.

Gary Burton and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra – QEH, London

If vibes master Gary Burton was one of Ken Nordine’s jazz colours – what would he be? After tonight’s London appearance, things are looking lilac. Bathed in a stage afterglow that softly mutated from the palest mauve to a deeper purple, the Indiana-born master of the four mallets walked on like a midWest professor about to give another lecture on F Scott Fitzgerald.

This brand new quartet began with the gentlest version of Afroblue you could imagine – genteel restraint and lyricism all round – before cranking down with a delicate ballad appropriately titled Last Snow. But Burton avoids obvious supper clubbery with his improvisational wizardry, and in this he’s more than matched by college kid guitarist Julian Lage. Sadly, Scott Colley’s thoughtful bass playing was recessed in the mix and just too – well – pale.

Drummer Antonio Sanchez provided the upbeat Did You Get It? Led by some propulsive stickwork, this brought out a fine solo from Burton which was more than matched by Lage’s efforts on the rarely performed Monk original Light Blue. But it fell short of the slightly rickety Monk quirkiness we should expect and despite the guitarist’s eloquent fretwork on the closing My Funny Valentine it all remained rather too pastel.

The second set from the Scottish NJO with Burton as soloist should have brought some much needed brass roar. But despite tight arrangements from the 16-piece band, we heard little of composer Wayne Shorter’s asymmetric lines except in the tender final solo by leader Tommy Smith who multi-toned his tenor through the classic Footprints and managed to capture both Shorter’s gruff tenor and clarion soprano in one heady swirl.

Less lilac and more indigo. Even a bit of violet would have helped.

Miles Davis – Bitches Brew (CBS)

For the next few weeks on Cosmic Jazz we shall be celebrating the 40th anniversary of the release of Miles Davis’ celebrated Bitches Brew album.  This is music that demands your attention.  It converted me (Neil) to jazz – see the About Us section on the front page of the Cosmic Jazz website.  It regularly features in lists of 100 Best Albums in any genre, most influential jazz albums and – probably – Albums You Should Listen to Before You Die.

So what is it that is so special about Bitches Brew?  The writer Paul Tingen[1] says the album is a “paradigm shift” and he’s right.  With the influence of rock music jazz was already changing and In a Silent Way, the album Davis had recorded earlier in 1969, was one of the first to make a real impact.  However, Davis wanted more.  He had told Clive Davis at CBS that he didn’t want his music to be marketed as jazz anymore.  He was obviously looking for something more – but the important thing is that it wasn’t going to be than just rock-influenced jazz.  Think about this – in another hands, the music that emerged would have been full of rock drums, electric guitar solos and maybe some ‘happening’ vocals.

Bitches Brew was nothing like this.  Davis wanted something darker in tone than In a Silent Way and he got it.  There are two ways he did this – and the first was the way he used instruments.  There are thirteen musicians used (compared with the eight on IASW) and one of the key additions is Bennie Maupin’s bass clarinet.  It’s there just for tone and colour – there no solos and no riffs – and Maupin uses the rich dark tones of the instrument for dramatic effect.  It’s well recorded that Davis would ask his bemused band to play what they didn’t know….  More than that, Davis’ own trumpet playing has a new aggressive tone and producer Teo Macero capitalised on this, bringing the instrument forward in the mix throughout the music.

The second reason Bitches Brew sounds different is that the studio is used as an instrument too, shaping and colouring the sound.  This is producer Teo Macero’s core contribution to the creation of this jazz masterpiece.  In fact, we now know that the title track and Pharaoh’s Dance (credited to keyboard player Joe Zawinul) are really the products of Macero’s cutting and pasting in the studio.  When Zawinul first heard the album in the CBS offices, he reportedly asked who the band on the stereo was.

For Davis, the concept was clear.  He described his process over the three days of recording as follows:

I would direct, like a conductor, once we started to play, and I would either write down some music for somebody or would tell him to play different things I was hearing, as the music was growing, coming together. While the music was developing I would hear something that I thought could be extended or cut back. So that recording was a development of the creative process, a living composition. It was like a fugue, or motif, that we all bounced off of. After it had developed to a certain point, I would tell a certain musician to come in and play something else. I wish we had thought of video taping that whole session. That was a great recording session, man.

Drummer Jack deJohnette noted that Davis always went for the essence of things, and that was much more important to him than going back and redoing a note that wasn’t perfect. Perfection for him was really capturing the essence of something, and being in the moment with it. And then he and Teo later edited all these moments and put them all together. Some of the edits surprised me, but overall they were seamless, and captured the feeling and the intensity of the music.”

And this brings us back to how that vision is developed in the music.  Perhaps Miles never played better than on Bitches Brew.  Over all of Macero’s 17 edits on Pharaoh’s Dance, for example, the level of invention is consistently brilliant – riffs, patterns, runs, slurs and smears are all as good as anything in the Davis canon, early or late.  Almost better than this though is the simple fact that Bitches Brew – with its Mati Klarwein specially commissioned cover art, a gatefold sleeve, the bare-chested photo of Miles and the prose poem by ralph j gleason – is still just so COOL.


[1] For more, read this article by Tingen:

http://jazztimes.com/articles/20243-miles-davis-and-the-making-of-bitches-brew-sorcerer-s-brew

Henriksen and Truffaz – two trumpeters in Norwich

Neil has played music by the Norwegian jazz trumpet player Arve Henriksen on  Cosmic Jazz and the tracks he selected have always sounded clear, uplifting and spiritual. So to discover that Arve Henriksen  was booked for  the 2010 Norfolk and Norwich Festival in  the ancient and beautiful setting of Norwich Cathedral  sounded like the perfect match between artist and venue.

The evening was a Friday and one of the first warm nights of the summer, the Cathedral was packed and the music started with a soaring piece featuring Henriksen and sampler/DJ Jan Bang.  Sadly, that was as good as it got.  For the next piece, The Voice Project Choir emerged from the sides with whispering sounds of precious and pretentious intensity that set the tone for the rest of the evening.  They are a local amateur choir and it showed.

Whenever Henriksen played the trumpet the tone was delicate and inspiring, even Middle Eastern flavoured at times.  The pity was the trumpet features were all too rare as he was often on vocals or conducting the choir. The music, although pretty at times, seemed to range from the ancient Christian choral tradition through to jazz and on to contemporary classical.  It was hard to see how lovers of any of these genres would feel satisfied.  There were a significant number of empty seats after the interval, although it must be said many gave rapturous applause at the end.

Eleven days later – on a cold Tuesday evening after the Bank Holiday – there was another trumpeter in Norwich. This time it was French Blue Note recording artist Erik Truffaz, with the beatboxer Sly Johnson and Philiippe Garcia on drums at Norwich Arts Centre. This is a band whose bookings include The Jazz Cafe, the Hay-on Wye Festival and the Brecon Jazz Festival and whose Paris Project CD is released on Blue Note, one of the greatest jazz labels of all time.

There were twenty-five people in the audience…

On the day, tickets had been reduced to £5 only, obviously to little effect. The band came on stage, looked around in bewilderment, and – as Truffaz noted – this was like a private party.

Those of us lucky enough to be at this private party had a rare treat. It was music to stretch and overlap boundaries but in a way that fitted together, in a way that was challenging and in a way that explored the limits of what is jazz. Sly Johnson with occasional vocals – and some sampling but mainly beatbox provided a forceful rhythm section along with the powerful and excellent drummer Philippe Garcia. There was constant engaging and almost playful interplay between the two.

Then there was Erik Truffaz. He was cool and said little. His playing was understated, delicate and precise but still powerful enough to be heard between the drums and the beatbox. On the quietest tune of the evening Goodbye Tomorrow – written by Sly Johnson – his trumpet playing was sheer, soaring, ethereal beauty.  Truffaz sometimes recorded his playing and then played it back; at times he joined with the other tw0 – and sometimes he just sat out.  There were no lavish, demonstrative solos.  There was no need for them.  This was not a night for the traditional jazz journey round the soloists.

But there was lavish applause at the end from all twenty-five of us.  So track down the recordings on Blue Note and if you get a chance to see Truffaz live – don’t pass it up.

Weather Report – Mysterious Traveller (CBS)

By 1974 Weather Report were already jazz superstars.  Co-founders Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter had been members of the influential Miles Davis group of 1969-70 but both wanted to take this sonic innovation further.  Unlike the studio experimentation of Miles’ producer Teo Macero in which the music evolved from open-ended rhythm tracks, Zawinul and Shorter were – from the outset – more interested in composition.

Added to this is Zawinul’s restless exploration of the new keyboard sounds that were percolating into jazz from rock sources and Shorter’s asymmetric soloing on the increasingly popular soprano saxophone.  The result – a jazz group whose melodies are as strong as any compositions in jazz.

Mysterious Traveller was not the breakthrough Weather Report album (that was Sweetnighter from 1973) but it has the best grooves (Nubian Sundance and Cucumber Slumber), the most austerely beautiful soloing (Blackthorn Rose and the title track) and the most moving of Zawinul’s home studio creations (Jungle Book).  Every track is a small masterpiece and we’ll be playing them all on Cosmic Jazz over the next seven weeks.  Enjoy!

The Best of 2009

Cosmic Jazz has never been restricted.  We don’t have a prearranged playlist and we play whatever we like.  For us, jazz is about how the music feels and sounds rather than whether it meets any restricted definition of what jazz might or might not be.[1]

That’s why our Best of 2009 features Brazilian music and hip hop as well as jazz.  Regular listeners will know that Cosmic Jazz has few boundaries.  We like to think that our listeners have similarly eclectic tastes – and, of course, you can tell us what you think of the music we play via your Comments.

So what did we select as the best of 2009?  Well, let’s start with Texan pianist Robert Glasper’s 2009 release Double Booked.  The title gives a clue – this time, Glasper has split the CD into two halves: first up is his regular acoustic piano trio (now with Chris Dave on drums) and then comes another six tracks with an expanded group featuring Casey Benjamin on saxes and vocoder and Bilal on vocals.  There are standout tracks in both halves – try No Worries or the epic All Matter.

Newly issued at the very end of the year was Daybreak, Japanese favourite Quasimode’s first CD for Blue Note – and we think it’s well up to their usual standard.  We selected a version of AfroBlue featuring the vocals of China Moses, daughter of singer DeeDee Bridgewater who has also recorded this classic.  Out of the same stable is Indigo Jam Unit’s EP length tribute to innovative rapper Common’s 2005 CD Be.  We featured the title track.  This really is jazz and hip hop working together.

Colin Towns is one of Britain’s finest arrangers and his new CD is well up to standard.  He’s worked with the innovative German HR Big Band before on Meeting of the Spirits, a celebration of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and here he creates a similarly inspiring series of arrangements for Miles Davis’s most electric music.  We think the 70s tracks work best – and Black Satin from the On the Corner sessions is a particularly good example.

One of the biggest surprises of the year was the way in which Mercury Award nominees the Portico Quartet have developed.  The new CD Isla is a giant leap forwards – see our full review elsewhere on the website for more on this excellent album.  Similarly boundary breaking is A Frozen Second, the new one from Kira Neris – aka the Strasbourg DJ and samplemaster Herve Poudoulec.  We loved the subtle shades of his first album and his sophomore release has the same qualities – fragmentary melodies stitched together into a fine mesh of addictive tracks.

Next up was a real instant new classic – so why didn’t it come up on more best of lists this year?  Buy Steve Kuhn’s Mostly Coltrane and you’ll be listening to this album for months and more.  A limpid ECM recording that enhances Kuhn’s delicate touch, this tribute to the master also features some of tenorman Joe Lovano’s best playing for years.  We played The Night has a Thousand Eyes, but we could have gone for Welcome or Crescent – two magnificent ‘trane originals that grace this exceptional recording.

We had to follow this with son Ravi’s most complete recording so far – Blending Times.  It’s no easy task playing the same instrument as your revered father, but Ravi Coltrane has finally made it from under this enveloping shadow.  Coltrane and his fine supporting band (featuring Luis Perdomo on piano on E J Strickland on drums) make this CD well worth checking out.

We’ve stressed how eclectic Cosmic Jazz is – so how about the comeback release from US rapper Mos Def and the new CD from Sao Paulo’s finest Ceu?  Both feature innovative arrangements that reshape the boundaries of their respective genres.  We played a track from each of these fine releases.

We couldn’t miss another opportunity to celebrate the first 70 years of legendary jazz imprint Blue Note Records.  The label has been pioneering jazz of many colours since its inception in 1939 and is still good to go in 2010.  We featured the title track from a newly covened roster of Blue Note artists including Ravi Coltrane and Nicholas Payton on a new arrangement of Cedar Walton/Art Blakey’s Mosaic.

Another label that has shaped the history of jazz is Impulse. While Blue Note might have been seen as straight ahead, Impulse represented the most innovative strands of jazz.  Tagging a great record label like this will always be too simplistic of course, but sometime in 2010 we’ll feature an all-Impulse evening of music so you can see what you think.  In the meantime we featured a great re-release from the distinctive orange and black spined albums – Encontros Part 3 from Gato Barbieri’s album Chapter 2: Hasta Siempre.  One of the best reissue packages of 2009 was from the always reliable Soul Jazz Records – a double CD set of music linked to Freedom Rhythm and Sound – revolutionary jazz original cover art 1965-83.  This coffee table review of album sleeves from Gilles Peterson’s personal collection of rare spiritual jazz albums from this most influential of eras.  We chose the little known drummer Errol Parker’s percussive Street Ends.

Finally, our review of the best of 2009 ended with two of the biggest hitters – a perfectly nuanced 1957 version of Bye Bye Blackbird from Miles Davis and the final ecstatic section of solo piano from Keith Jarrett’s Testament – a record of his two most recent solo concerts in Paris and London.  The biggest box set reissue of this (or any) year had to be the Miles Davis Complete Columbia Album Collection.  The 70 CD set may have been plagued with pressing problems but this is a magnificent project by any standard.

Honorable Cosmic Jazz mentions that we couldn’t fit in include Vijay Iyer’s Historicity, Dub Colossus’s fine EP Return to Addis, Dr Boondigga and the Big BW from Fat Freddy’s Drop and Dave Holland’s wonderful Monterey Quartet live in 2007.  We’d also recommend the ECM reissues under their Touchstone label – paper sleeved CD versions of great albums.  Start with the stunning Extensions from (again) Dave Holland) or Bill Frisell’s Lookout for Hope.

Enjoy your end of year jazz – and see you in 2010 for more adventures on the Cosmic Jazz journey.


[1] On this note, my 1978 edition of The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Jazz (Salamander Press) features the following final paragraph in its entry on Miles Davis:

Miles’ new conception was derived from West Coast acid rock [sic]…Miles cut what, from the jazz fan’s viewpoint, was to be his last album, In a Silent Way.  Although labels are arbitrary, Miles Davis’ subsequent output is of little interest to the jazz record collector.

Fortunately, my formative listening years were not harmed by this blinkered view of what is or isn’t jazz.

The Overtone Quartet – QEH, London 20 November 2009

dave-holland“Okay Dave, let’s start planning the 2009 tour.  Now, obviously a lot of the musicians you’d really like in this new quartet will be busy – but just give me some names to kick things off.”

“Well, Jason Moran on piano would be my first choice.”

[pause]

“Hmm.  It actually looks like he could make the dates…”

“Wow!  What a start.  Well I’d love to have Chris Potter on saxes again but of course…”

[pause]

“No, he’s free too.”

“I can’t believe this, but I’m going to go with the flow.  Now, it has to be Eric Harland on drums – but he’s everywhere these days.”

“It’s a long shot, but I’ll give him a call.”

[long pause]

“You kidding?  Really?  Dave – you won’t believe this but…”

Well, however it happened, British bass player Dave Holland has to be the luckiest man alive.  Not only did he actually get this stellar line-up for his short 2009 tour, but all four members of the Overtone Quartet clearly left their egos outside the rehearsal studio and – on the evidence of this final show of the tour – in the foyer too.

This band works – and they know it.  The interplay between Moran and Potter is breathtaking and Holland’s knowing looks at Harland suggest that the bearded veteran and the young tyro love the way it’s all come good.

The sell-out audience were treated to new compositions from each player, but raw themes were just the starting point for characteristically muscular soloing from Potter and lyrical diversions from Moran, who switched effortlessly between Steinway and Fender Rhodes.  Holding it all together were Holland and Harland.  Age has never mattered in jazz, and this quartet prove it once more as they demonstrated how Holland’s ability to extract the best from his collaborators on stage continues with each new group.  Holland – born in the 1940s in Wolverhampton but with most of his creative life spent in the USA – has created a band that, on the evidence of tonight, will surely be in contention for best release of 2010 if recorded.

The opening number was Chris Potter’s The Outsiders, an original composition for this group like most of the pieces tonight.  Potter’s agile, serpentine soloing threw up fragmentary melodies that were coloured in by Moran – a symbiotic partnership that continued at this level throughout the evening.  Harland’s elastic changes of rhythm on the now fashionable small kit were mesmerising (especially from the front row) and Holland anchored it all with unassuming fluency.  Potter’s style and tone seem to get more and more secure.  He can provide pithy little cameos (as on the Steely Dan album Two Against Nature) but he can also wig out big time on complex extended solos (typically heard on his live releases like Follow the Red Line).

Holland’s own first contribution was new too – Walking the Walk was a bassline driven vamp (rather like the title track on his most recent CD Pass It On) but unselfishly Holland gave opportunities for Moran and Potter to shine again.  Moran’s Blue Blocks and Harland’s Patterns were both packed with insidious riffs and featured Moran building swaggeringly confident solos apparently from thin air.  Remember, this is the jazz pianist who gave us a jazz trio version of the minimalist techno classic Planet Rock

The pre-encore performance ended with Interception from Holland’s landmark 1973 ECM album Conference of the Birds.  Ironically, it sounded the most contemporary and asymmetric performance of the night.  Here Holland reworked that spare and very different bad cop quartet sound to give us its more user-friendly good cop partner.  This time playing with a warm and tender agility on his custom bass, Holland drew out the underlying melody of the tune – and raised the bar again for Moran and Potter who responded with angular confidence throughout.

Interception ended with a solo from Eric Harland which had Holland shaking his head in quiet disbelief.  The Texan drummer created an endlessly inventive series of intricate polyrhythms while holding down a complex right foot pedal pattern.  Crowd pleasing of course – but with more than enough substance and originality to explain why Harland is probably the most sought after young drummer on the international jazz circuit today.

A thought on saxophonist Chris Potter.  His tone was once equal measures of Coltrane, both Redmans, Rollins and a more coarse-grained Garbarek but it is now securely his own.  Here at the QEH, it’s almost as if you see him listening, learning and then playing better than ever as the group bed around him.  Nowhere is this more apparent than on the encore, again a new Potter composition called Sky.  This final extended number built into a groove that had more than a little of It’s About That Time from Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way, one of the most important and influential jazz releases ever.  Oh – and Dave Holland was on that one too.  It was a fitting end to a memorable night – and it’s just become my favourite concert of 2009.

The Portico Quartet – Isla (Realworld)

isla

There have been great sophomore albums in the past – think of Love’s Da Capo or The Freewheeling Bob Dylan.  In the jazz world, how about Out There from Eric Dolphy in which his signature sound was forged or Robert Glasper’s second album Canvas, his first for Blue Note and the sign of far greater things to come?

This is another great second album.  Isla is a giant leap forward from Knee Deep in the North Sea, Portico’s Mercury-nominated debut release. Cosmic Jazz saw the quartet in Colchester and were only averagely impressed.  Perhaps it was something to do with the fact that Jack Wyllie’s soprano sax had to be borrowed at the very last minute (he’d forgotten his) but I think not.

The truth is that this is simply a much better record- production that does them justice, great melodies and a real integration of the Portico sound this time round.  There’s more than a feeling of the expansiveness of the Cinematic Orchestra with acoustic bass well forward in the mix to and subtle use of loops, electronics and additional instrumentation (marimba, cello, violin and viola) all balanced by John Leckie’s major league production.  Responsible for Radiohead’s The Bends, here he’s miraculously contained and expanded the Portico sound and has recognised that their unique use of the Swiss made percussion instrument the hang is much more about colouration rather than as a solo gimmick.  Nick Mulvey’s hang drum – which looks like a giant version of the old Cadbury Smash alien character – is a unique kind of steel pan that adds delicate gamelan tones to powerful soloing from Wyllie and sympathetic support from Milo Fitzpatrick on bass and Duncan Bellamy on drums.

Interestingly, Wyllie is strongest on soprano rather than tenor and ironically the music woks best when it steers away from conventional free jazz blowing (as in Clipper) where the gentle percussive soundworld clashes with Wyllie’s tenor rather than enhances it.  But the way that key tracks like Isla and Dawn Patrol build and grow and then hang around in the memory (no pun intended) is impressive.  Portico still has the cyclical minimalism of Steve Reich but the mood is darker than on Knee Deep… and across all seven tracks it works.

This is a CD to come back to and linger over.  It is deeply cinematic and could well serve a future film soundtrack.  Equally, I predict an album of remixes on the back of the Subtrak mix of Line you can hear on the Portico Myspace site.  It’s exciting to hear a band that have moved so far forward for a second album.  The anticipated ‘sophomore slump’ doesn’t apply here so the only question now is can the Porticos can raise the bar again for album number 3?  I’m looking forward to seeing them try – and in the meantime I can’t wait for the Colchester show next week.