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Complete Communion

Complete Communion: Stewart Smith Reviews Jazz For July
Stewart Smith , July 19th, 2017 08:28

Stewart Smith is back with a Summer jazz special including reviews of the new Nicole Mitchell, the debut of Jaimie Branch and report from the Glasgow Jazz Festival

Photograph by Peter Gannushkin

It’s midsummer and the jazz cup overfloweth, so we’re bringing you an extra Complete Communion to catch the spillage. And what spillage! Trumpeter Jamie Branch’s Fly Or Die is one of the debuts of the year: a remarkably assured set that more than delivers on the promise she has shown in her appearances with the likes of William Parker, Matana Roberts and Ken Vandermark. Her fellow Chicagoan Nicole Mitchell follows up her outstanding Afro-futurist suite Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds (one of tQ’s albums of the year so far) with a terrific live set featuring UK drummer Mark Sanders. On a UK tip, we bring you the latest solo piano album from the maestro Pat Thomas, and the infectious debut from upcoming London saxophonist Nubya Garcia. Then we hop back over to New York for Ambrose Akinmusire’s epic Village Vanguard set on Blue Note, before ending with some reflections on the recent Glasgow Jazz Festival.

Jaimie Branch - Fly Or Die
(International Anthem)

Raised in Chicago and based in New York, Jamie Branch has been one to watch for some time now, collaborating with masters like William Parker and sui generis innovators like Matana Roberts. Like Roberts, Branch has done session work with TV On The Radio, and her idiom is similarly wide-ranging, corralling jazz, punk and avant-garde influences into a carefully thought-out conceptual framework. Her leader debut Fly Or Die opens with a rush of cyclonic breath tones, as Branch blows air and saliva through every nook and cranny of her trumpet. This short burst of extended technique is expressly not the sound of a musician tentatively feeling out the space. Branch condenses the noise effects of trumpet innovators like Peter Evans and Nate Wooley into a 15 second statement of intent that flushes out the ear wax and announces her willingness to go far out. A punkish count-in by drummer Chad Smith takes us straight into ‘Theme 001’, its lurching kick-drum offset by intricate frame taps and the hissing clatter of closed hi-hat patterns. Jason Ajemian introduces a high, syncopated bass part, quickly joined by Tomeka Reid’s jabbing cello accents. Their jittery swing recalls the peerless free-funk of Julius Hemphill’s Dogon A.D. and the street-smart groove Miles Davis’s On The Corner, directed through the machine precision of Can or Tortoise. Branch enters, stating the theme in a strong, clean tone that sure as hell means business. She plays the melody straight, showing how the group arrangement stems from the rhythm and harmony of her composition. With each round, she adds slight variations in phrasing or tone, whipping it all into shape with hard parade ground trills. After less than three minutes it all breaks down to a shimmering meditation on a single chord, somewhere between Terry Riley and Albert Ayler’s folk polyphony. Matt Schneider’s tremulous acoustic guitar swiftly moves from the background to become featured instrument on the ‘Meanwhile’ interlude. His rich Jack Rose fingerpicking is detourned by spindly Derek Bailey-like string snaps and harmonics, while Reid and Ajemian’s scraped strings and glisses bring Branch and Smith back in for an abstract free improvisation.

A tight snare tattoo and we’re back into the snapping and popping groove of ‘Theme 002’, with Branch working over tight muted burbles for a few short bars, before moving into a considered extension of the melody that is more about teasing out subtle inflections than embarking on wild harmonic runs. A reflective three-note figure introduced towards the end of that track becomes the basis of ‘Leaves Of Glass’, where Branch’s trumpet is joined by the stately cornets of Ben Lamar Gay and Josh Berman. Branch’s playing comes back in pitch-shifted trails of echo and reverb, moving wraith-like under the live horns. It seamlessly moves into ‘The Storm’, where descending cello glissandi and rumbling toms disappear down dub caverns, as trumpet at cornet steer a slow and steady course through the fog. The uncanny atmospherics of this electronically enhanced sequence are reflected in the acoustic jazz abstraction of ‘Waltzer’, where Branch’s trumpet flits and swoops over melodic cello fragments, leading into the titular solo feature. Having stretched out for a few minutes, Branch whips the suite back into shape with a no-nonsense fanfare, bringing the group back in for a driving reprise of the main theme/groove. Schneider returns for the acoustic guitar coda ‘Back At The Ranch’, giving the folk echoes of the main suite a gorgeous flamenco shading. It’s an inspired final touch from a visionary young artist.

Nicole Mitchell & Mark Sanders - 14.5.16

Nicole Mitchell’s Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds is one of the year’s most remarkable albums, a visionary Afro-Futurist suite that takes in electro-acoustic improv, avant-rock, gospel and blues. This live set, recorded last May at Café Oto is a more modest affair, but it’s a beautiful document of her brilliance as a flautist and improviser. This show was Mitchell’s UK debut and the original plan was to team her with the great French double bassist Jöelle Léandre, a regular collaborator. Due to an injury, Léandre was forced to pull out, leaving London-based drummer Mark Sanders to step in. An Oto regular, Sanders is a sympathetic foil for Mitchell, combining abstraction with an indelible sense of groove. The first piece sees Mitchell dancing around Sanders’ fluttering brushwork and gentle bass bumps, occasionally landing on a melody or groove, which they develop with subtlety and delight. The second track begins in a more abstract manner, with Mitchell playing searching bass flute tones over Sanders’ bowed cymbals and gong-like percussion. There’s a distinctly Far Eastern air to proceedings, with shades of gagaku and Teiji Ito’s soundtracks for Maya Deren. Other reference points might include Don Cherry’s world music and the vivid tone-world of Marion Brown’s Gechee Recollections, but Mitchell’s own voice comes through in the playful vocalisations and often strident melodies. An inspired ad hoc pairing.

Pat Thomas – The Elephant Clock Of Al Jazari

Pat Thomas is arguably Britain’s greatest living avant-garde pianist, using his astonishing dexterity to realise musical concepts of mind-bending originality. Recorded live at Café Oto in 2015, The Elephant Clock Of Al Jazari is a riveting solo piano album, which retains its conceptual unity in the face of the blizzard of ideas flowing from Thomas’s fingers. The title refers to the water clock invented by the medieval Arab polymath Badi’ al-Zama ibn al-Rzzaz al-Jazari. Considered by many scholars to be the father of modern robotics, al-Jazari included the design for his elephant clock in his Book Of The Knowledge Of Ingenious Mechanical Devices (1206). The elephant clock was one of his most intricate designs, combining Greek water raising technology with an Indian elephant, Egyptian phoenix, Arabian figures, Persian carpet and Chinese Dragons in a celebration of the world’s cultures.

Although it would be a mistake to read these pieces too programmatically, there is undoubtedly something of al-Jazari’s mechanical ingenuity in Thomas’ deconstructed clockwork rhythms and percussive inside-piano tones. Much of the performance is built around stark blocks of sound, all dissonant intervals and oblique angles, as if he has used one of Franz Kline’s black and white abstract expressionist paintings as a visual score. Bass notes clunk, piano strings shimmer and buzz, while whistling birds and waterfalls pour from the upper keys. The final piece, ‘Done’, tears along at a fair old pace, like an old steam locomotive reinventing the laws of physics as it tumbles down a hillside into an alternative dimension. Thomas winds up as the pianist in some intergalactic gin joint, playing jaunty atonal Ellingtonia to a crowd of extra-terrestrial gangsters. A trip.

Pat Thomas plays a four-day residency at Café Oto from Thursday 27 to Sunday 30 July. In addition to solo sets and an interview, Thomas will be performing with a jaw-dropping range of collaborators that includes Orphy Robinson, Phil Minton, Cleveland Watkiss, Lauren Kinsella and Okkyung Lee. For more information, visit the Café Oto website

Nubya Garcia – Nubya’s 5ive
(Jazz Re:Freshed)

More goodies from what’s coming to be known as the London jazz beat scene. 25-year-old saxophonist Nubya Garcia came through the vital Tomorrow’s Warriors programme and is also a member of the all-women septet Nérija. Her leader debut is a winning excursion into groove-based modal jazz, alighting on similar territory to Kamasi Washington but approaching it with less bombast, and giving it a London accent. Her crack band includes drummer Moses Boyd – whose second album with saxophonist Binker Golding, Journey To The Mountain Of Forever, is a must-hear – and tuba player Theon Cross, a member of Sons of Kemet and collaborator with Kano. ‘Lost Kingdoms’ kicks off with a bright, knotty sax chorus, before shifting to a lower gear, with the main theme played on saxophone, and Sheila ‘PiaMaurice-Gray providing a trumpet counterpoint. With each pass of the chorus, the mellower sections gather in pace and intensity, so that the main theme soars by the end. ‘Fly Free’ is a little spacier, with shades of Alice Coltrane or Pharoah Sanders in the bass riff and open piano voicings, and some lovely playing from Garcia. ‘Hold’ has a loping electric piano laced groove D’Angelo would be proud of, yet it gains a character of its own thanks to the funky waddle of Cross’s tuba. Garcia and her rhythm section are never content to ride out the groove in a pleasantly stoned manner as some of the US groups do; the second half sees Boyd and Femi Koloeso going head to head on drums, building up intricate polyrhythms in the manner of Sons of Kemet. Bassist Daniel Casimir opens ‘Contemplation’ with an extended solo feature that explores the instrument’s more lyrical side, leading into a reflective ballad theme. The group soon gathers steam, with pianist Joe Armon-Jones deftly stoking the engine beneath the elegant shimmer of his right hand. He gets to shine on the extended solo intro to ‘Red Sun’, finding unusual harmonic substitutions and augmentations for his classically-tinged chording. The group enter and the piece transforms into a homage to the modal jazz of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, with Armon-Jones and Boyd are clearly having a ball in the McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones roles. This is no mere pastiche, but a piece that takes Coltrane as the starting point, rather than the destination. Ideal summer listening, and an impressive calling card from the hugely talented Garcia.

Ambrose Akinmusire – A Rift In Decorum: Live At The Village Vanguard
(Blue Note)

Recording a live album at the famed Village Vanguard might seem a tad vainglorious: it’s only the venue where John Coltrane recorded the revolutionary ‘Chasing The Trane’ back in 1961. But music moves forward and no performer should be burdened by the weight of a club’s history. Ambrose Akinmusire talks of being ‘bear-hugged by the spirits in there’, and his approach on this epic double disc set is to embrace the tradition, while moving forward on his own terms. At 35, Akinmusire has established himself as one of the leading jazz musicians of his generation, occupying a space to the left of the mainstream where ballads and hard bop can slide into avant-garde abstraction. A brilliant trumpeter, Akinmusire plays with a rounded, slightly granular tone that’s equally suited to soulful lyricism as it is to free-wheeling runs.

The first two tunes are elegant contemporary jazz, characterised by Sam Harris’s warm piano voicings. ‘Moment In Between The Rest (The Curve Of An Ache)’ is the first example of Akinmusire’s desire to be where extremes meet, as he responds to his quartet’s twilit impressionism with extended techniques. Thanks to Akinmusire’s sensitive musicality, what could have been a banal exercise in juxtaposition proves highly affecting, as if a wistful ballad is trying to escape the trumpet’s blocked valves. ‘A Song To Exhale To (Diver Song)’ is more straightforwardly lyrical, while ‘Trumpet Sketch (Milky Pete)’ sees the full band going gangbusters as they rocket hard bop into the future. Harris pounds away at stacked chords and odd substitutions, as drummer Justin Brown runs a triathlon around his kit, while bassist Harish Raghavan deftly anchors it all. Perhaps the most moving part of the entire performance comes early in ‘First Page (Shabnam’s Poem)’ as Akinmusire threads a ghostly blues moan between his fuller-voiced melodies. This must have been a wonderful gig to experience first-hand: fortunately. the album sounds pretty damn special too.

Glasgow Jazz Festival

Few would claim that Glasgow Jazz Festival is at the cutting-edge of music, but the long-running event has been revitalised in the past couple of years by its renewed focus on younger talent (although, like most mainstream jazz festivals, its lineup is dominated by twee swing bands and pedestrian tribute shows – but hey, whatever floats your boat). Slimmed down to five days, with fewer big-name headliners, the festival has moved most of its action to smaller venues, creating a much better atmosphere for musicians and punters alike. Basement venue Stereo – a space whose rafters have, in the past, rattled to the sound of Sunn 0))) and your correspondent’s drunken karaoke rendition of ‘Believe’ by Cher – plays host to bass wiz Michael Janisch and his band Paradigm Shift, a suitably progular name given their contemporary fusion sound. This isn’t perhaps the kind of jazz I’d reach for at home, but it’s pretty exciting live, particularly when altoist John O’Gallagher is let loose over Janisch’s more febrile grooves (it’s worth noting that O’Gallagher’s appreciative jazz faces during his partners’ solos are works of art in their own right). As nimble as Janisch’s electric bass playing is, I prefer Paradigm Shift in an acoustic format, where the folkish tinge to his writing comes to the fore.

The festival’s secret weapon is Kaja Draksler’s solo piano set at the City Halls’ Recital Room on the Saturday evening. Based in Amsterdam, the Slovenian pianist and composer is one of the most distinctive new voices on the European scene, having recorded a number of solo and leader projects, as well as a fine duo set with the brilliant young Portuguese trumpeter Susana Santos Silva. Her latest album, the octet set Gledalec, draws on free improvisation, jazz, and classical music, with a beautiful detour into the choral music of Slovenian Renaissance composer Jacobus Gallus Petelin. Several of those elements come through in the improvisations and compositions she plays on the City Halls’ Steinway grand. There’s a beautiful logic to Draksler’s improvisations, as she builds on repeated phrases, drawn from a tight cluster of notes. She prepares the piano with great care, placing bolts under strings and measuring the effect it has on the timbre of the struck notes, before inventing a pattern around the buzzing and dampened tones. Her attention to percussive sounds is equally notable, as she scrunches tissue paper against the strings and explores the resonance of the frame with gentle taps from a timpani mallet. Later, she plays a composition based around the tintinnabulation of the church bells in her home village, and turns what may have been fragments of Thelonious Monk into cubist stride piano.

Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra’s Sunday matinee is a fixture of the festival, with the group usually joined by a guest artist. Recent turns have included Evan Parker and Howard Riley, and this year sees veteran vocal improviser Phil Minton entering the fray. He’s an inspired choice, helping to make this one of the most enjoyable GIO gigs I’ve seen. Credit is also due to the new members of the band, who bring fresh energy to proceedings. The first half of the show features pieces by GIO members Una McGlone and Emma Roche. McGlone’s piece tests the concept of democracy and inclusion, resulting in an intriguing performance of unusual instrumental combinations and unexpected absences. Devised in collaboration with Dr Mauro Dragone from the Edinburgh Centre For Robotics, Roche’s piece maps the musicians’ journeys through the real world onto their musical journeys through an imagined ones. The distance travelled by the individual musicians shapes their contributions, from their point of entry, to the duration and intensity of their playing. GIO is renowned for its novel approaches to structured improvisation, and these are particularly successful. After the break, Minton leads GIO in a feral choir performance that ranges from overlapping drones and rising tones, to farmyard anarchy featuring rampant chickens and forlorn goats. As the choir comes together on a doomy pedal point, Minton turns to face the audience to sing an apocalyptic folk song or hymn in the voice of a Plague era preacher: the dark beauty of it all is riveting.