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Complete Communion

Complete Communion: Jazz Roundup - UK Special
Stewart Smith , March 2nd, 2018 08:12

This month’s roundup is 100% British, but do not fear: we are all jazz and no jingo. With Nat Birchall, Martin Pyne, Nubya Garcia, Theon Cross and more.

Moses Boyd

The first Complete Communion of 2018 is a UK special: not out of patriotism or any such nonsense, but mainly cos I’ve been inundated with interesting new music from Britain-based artists. And it’s not all about London: there’s a huge amount happening across the UK, from Manchester and Sheffield to Coventry and Glasgow. From good-time grooves to the outer limits of free improvisation, jazz’s freedom message continues to resonate. The music’s liberatory potential points to a better, more radical Britain, distinct from the rainy fascist hellscape of the Daily Mail and the 1997-forever banality of the centrist dads. From Stormzy’s Brit Awards excoriation of Theresa May to the widespread solidarity shown towards the university pensions strike, there’s a genuine sense that the old order is falling. In culture, grime is leading the charge, but jazz and improv are right in there too, suggesting new ways of engaging with art and life.

Before we dive into the main reviews, it’s worth mentioning a couple of recent UK releases you might have missed. Favourite Animals is an expanded version of Cath Roberts’ group Sloth Rocket. On the ten-piece’s self-titled debut, Roberts resists the temptation to make things bigger and louder, choosing to explore a wide range of timbres and textures instead. Opening track ‘Confirm Or Deny’ has the group pivoting between tightly coiled skronk and extended-technique heavy abstraction, while ‘Unspeakable’ takes the brooding post-rock of early Tortoise for a night time drive through the Fens.

Sloth Racket guitarist Anton Hunter has also started a big band. Article XI features various UK musicians from Sloth Racket’s orbit, alongside Scandinavians Mette Rasmussen and Eero Tikkanen. In an ingenious twist on Duke Ellington’s technique of incorporating his soloists’ personalities into his writing, Hunter has each group member record a short improvised response to a short melodic passage, which he then works into the score. The result is a distinctive group sound characterised by jointly articulated themes and inventive explorations of timbre and texture. Roberts and Hunter show new possibilities for the leftfield big band by combining sophisticated ensemble writing with state of the art extended techniques from the wilder shores of free improvisation.

Various - We Out Here (Brownswood)

Man of the moment Shabaka Hutchings is the guiding hand behind We Out Here, a showcase of London’s young jazz scene. Recorded in three days flat, the album has an urgency to it that a lengthier session might have smoothed out. That’s not to say it’s a raw affair; these are some slick cats. What to make of such slickness? One can’t live on skronk alone, and I’m suspicious of any avant-garde that rejects pop outright. But I think it’s fair to say that while there’s some highly enjoyable music on We Out Here, it isn’t, for the most part, particularly adventurous.

Much has been made of the new generation's affinity with grime, hip-hop and club music, but as befitting a project on Gilles Peterson’s label, the influence of rare groove and reissue culture is strong. Ezra Collective contribute the Afrobeat-influenced ‘Pure Shade’, while Kokoroko channel sweet Caribbean sounds on ‘Abusey Junction’. Maisha’s ‘Inside The Acorn’ is a solid homage to the spiritual jazz of Pharaoh Sanders, while Nubya Garcia’s ‘Once’ is an appealing piece of neo-bop elevated by Joe Armon-Jones’s luscious McCoy Tyner-esque piano. Triforce have swirling synths and electronic drum pads, but their music is essentially ’70s fusion, complete with sex-face guitar noodling and saucy slap bass. Hutchings’ ‘Black Skin, Black Masks’ offers a fresh take on the tradition, its expansive grooves, snaking clarinets and elegant piano offset by artful abstraction.

Only two of the acts really get into the nitty-gritty of contemporary electronic and bass music. Theon Cross brings swaggering grime tuba and hyped-up free-bop interplay to ‘Brockley’, while Moses Boyd gives us the album’s deepest dive into electronica with ‘Sirens’. It begins with palm-muted guitar and crunchy drum loops pricking at the surface of swelling synth pads. Dub horns and dirty synth bass raise the pressure, before raw tenor sax and frenetic hard bop drums tear the roof off. It’s hands down the most exciting track here, transcending artisanal good taste to get down with LTJ Bukem and Archie Shepp. Not everyone can be Orphy Robinson and Pat Thomas’s Black Top, dropping digi dub and atonal funk synths into Afrofuturist free improvisation, but it would be cool to see more of that what-the-hell audacity from the new generation. That said, it took Robinson - a member of the ’80s Jazz Warriors generation - years to get there, and he rejects false dichotomies by continuing to work in more mainstream contexts. The likes of Boyd, Cross and Garcia are still finding themselves. It’ll be fascinating to see where they’ll go next.

Nat Birchall – Cosmic Language (Jazzman)

Mancunian saxophonist Nat Birchall makes no apologies for working within the spiritual jazz tradition of Alice and John Coltrane, right down to the stately melodies and vibrato-less tone. Yet Cosmic Language is no mere retro exercise. Music with this much personality and conviction is always going to sound fresh, and Birchall and his quartet put their own spin on the tradition by burrowing deep into Indian classical forms. Key to this is harmonium player Adam Fairhall, whose drones and raga-based extemporisations take Birchall’s music into new dimensions. Opening track ‘The Man From Varanasi’ is dedicated to the shenai master Bismillah Ali Khan, and it’s certainly tempting to imagine Birchall channelling the great man on his upper register flights.

But Birchall fully integrates the ragas into his modal harmonic language, ensuring Cosmic Language never sounds like ersatz Indian music or superficial fusion. It opens beautifully, with Birchall blowing serenely over harmonium, bowed bass, and shakers. Bassist Michael Bardon starts up a subtly propulsive pizzicato riff, with drummer Andy Hay following him with behind-the-beat accents. A quiet momentum builds, with Birchall and Fairhall both taking quietly ecstatic solos. ‘Humility’ sets a graceful melody against Hay’s free-rolling drums, with great features for Fairhall (shimmering Terry Riley-like patterns) and Bardon (microtonal sarangi-like sweeps). ‘Dervish’ has Fairhall cutting loose on harmonium, while ‘A Prayer For’ concludes the album on a blissful note. A gorgeous album, a love serene.

Martin Archer + Engine Room Favourites - Safety Signal From A Target Town (Discus Music)

Sheffield’s Martin Archer is one of music’s undersung heroes, tirelessly promoting new music through his and Mick Beck’s Discus label and helming numerous groups, both large and small. He certainly has a penchant for the big band, putting a contemporary spin on prog, krautrock and jazz-rock fusion with Orchestra Of The Upper Atmosphere, and taking inspiration from the Association For The Advancement Of Creative Music (AACM) with Engine Room Favourites. Safety Signal From A Target Town is the latter group’s third and most ambitious release to date. The 13-strong list of personnel reads like a who’s who of improvising musicians outside the capital, from Derby’s Graham Clark and Corey Mwamba, to Leeds’ Laura Cole, and Manchester’s Johnny Hunter. Trumpeter Kim Macari and saxophonist Riley Stone-Longeran are now based in London, but maintain strong links with the Scottish and Northern scenes.

As Archer writes in his sleeve notes, although he’s not much given to programmatic music, “the titles enable the listener to imagine their own story of a world moving in exactly the opposite direction to the version most people would wish to live in.” The music was written in the final months of 2016, so it’s perhaps no surprise to see a track called ‘Happy Birthday! Mr President (aka POTUS FU)’. Archer demoed all the parts himself, before calling on Cole to help write the score. Once assembled, the group banged it all out in two days: impressive.

The title track begins with a pensive piano motif, around which saxophone, skittering percussion and bass carefully circle. Archer’s sputtering baritone sax kicks things up a gear, and the piece goes through several stages before resolving in a Rhodes-laced Latin groove that’s offset by Macari’s angular trumpet. The animated rhythms of ‘Perfect Soldier’ have something of the hip, metropolitan feel of early 60s Blue Note, with Mwamba’s vibraphone dancing around Seth Bennett’s pacey bass runs. The final passage introduces a sweeping modal theme with a Middle Eastern flavour. That continues on ‘Playground In The Desert’, the main theme of which has a touch of Sun Ra’s big band exotica. The mood darkens halfway through as the piece breaks down into a reflective piano, bass and vibraphone feature.

Violinist Graham Clark gets an extended feature on ‘Happy Birthday! Mr President’, swinging like Billy Bang or Renee Baker over a sardonic big band riff. ‘One Minute To Midnight/Beijing Halflife’ ends the album on a more abstract note, with Mick Beck’s bassoon and George Murray’s trombone negotiating an otherworldly environment of percussive textures. Gradually, a jagged motif emerges, only to fall away for an arco bass feature. The band slowly re-enters in an improvisatory manner, leaning heavily on unconventional tones and extended techniques. No matter how free it gets, there’s an underlying structure at play, so that when we arrive at the wistful violin and piano coda, the listener feels that they have been taken somewhere. A terrific big band suite, giving space to individual voices while forming a cohesive whole.

Martin Pyne/Stephen Grew Duo - Winter Landscape (Tall Guy Records)

Delightful vibraphone and piano improvisations from the duo of Martin Pyne and Stephen Grew. There’s always a danger that such a project could be too obviously programmatic in its evocation of winter (Twinkling snowflake piano? Impressionistic harmonies? You got it!) but Pyne and Grew avoid cliche by finding novel ways to capture the particularities of the British landscape. ‘Hard Frost’ begins with a focus on high notes and brittle timbres, before Pyne kicks in the vibraphone’s motor to conjure softer, more resonant tones. These soon succumb to the deep freeze of Drew’s minimalist chordal pulse, as forms harden in the cold.

Pyne is particularly inventive on ‘Icicles’, using the sticks and the frame to create needling percussive textures while Grew marches up and down the piano in crab-like motions. With Pyne’s syncopated brush-work behind him, Grew’s angular motifs start to resemble Cuban jazz. That thaw sees the icicles begin to fall from the eaves in crisp, rippling patterns and freezing droplets. If, like me, you’re snowed in by the Beast From The East, then you could do a lot worse than Winter Landscape as a soundtrack to the white-out.

David Birchall/Andrew Cheetham/Colin Webster/Otto Willberg – Plastic Kneecap (Raw Tonk)

Raw Tonk, the label run by London saxophone wrangler Colin Webster, is a key node in the UK-Lowlands underground improv axis. Its latest release – their first on vinyl – documents a December 2015 studio session from Webster and his Manchester comrades David Birchall (guitar), Andrew Cheetham (drums), and Otto Willberg (double bass). As with much of Raw Tonk’s output, there’s a punky energy to Plastic Kneecap, but it’s much too weird and agitated to be a blunt exercise in macho blurt.

There’s plenty of rasp, fidget and clatter, but it’s brought together with a keen sense of form.
Early on, Webster brings the set into focus with sing-song alto phrases in the key of Ornette, encouraging his bandmates to mould their abstract scrabble into some kind of wonky, fragmented groove, as if Prime Time had come up through the post-punk DIY scene. From there, it gradually breaks down into a quieter, more atmospheric section, with tremolo sax tones and growling bass drones slowly surveying a landscape of pattering toms and spiky, creaking guitar. It all builds up to a ragged climax, with Webster’s alto reinforcing this music’s odd relationship with free jazz.

‘Split Halfway’ opens with plenty of squawk and squibble. In contrast to the fuller low-end tones of the previous track, Cheetham goes for higher, less resonant drum timbres, rapping his sticks against the frame and hitting the snare at its tightest spot. Webster comes in with some relatively tuneful alto licks, upping the energy until the group achieve a kinetic intensity that’s almost free jazz, but for Birchall’s glue-huffing biker fuzz riffage. It all breaks down into wonky guitar chimes and buzzing baritone sax, becoming increasingly agitated as they canter towards the finishing line.

Tony Bevan & Kim Moore - Rime (Foghorn Records)

Since moving to Glasgow in 2016, the mighty saxophonist Tony Bevan has run the improvised music event Help Me I’m Melting!, where he collaborates with musicians from the Scottish, UK and international scenes. A duo with underground hero Richard Youngs has already appeared online, but Rime is the first vinyl release from the sessions, lovingly presented on Bevan’s own Foghorn Records (Spring Heel Jack’s Ashley Wales is responsible for the artwork).

This set from August 2016 sees Bevan commune with Kim Moore (WOLF, Zoey Van Goey). Moore uses pedals to layer melodic fragments over textural drones, while Bevan patiently explores a range of bass saxophone timbres, from guttural parps to long, fluttering tones. There’s some beautifully sensitive duo playing, where lyrical phrases emerge from sustained tonal clusters. Elsewhere, it gets pretty gnarly, with Moore’s distorted viola and Bevan’s breathy slobber conjuring images of a steel mill sinking into a stormy ocean. The final section is stunning, with Bevan’s grainy soprano saxophone soaring and braying over Moore’s ghostly orchestra.

Alan Tomlinson Trio – Out And Out (FMR)

A member of the second generation of British improv, trombonist Alan Tomlinson was a member of groups led by Tony Oxley, Peter Brötzmann and Barry Guy, and has been a regular collaborator with David Toop, Phil Minton and Steve Beresford. His trio reconnects him with Northern roots. On guitar we have former Fall member Dave Tucker (that’s him on the classic Slates) and on drums, the brilliant Phillip Marks, a founding member of the Manchester group Bark! and a regular collaborator with Tony Bevan and Dominic Lash. Out And Out gathers highlights from shows between 2009 and 2016. Tomlinson knows how to mine the trombone’s tragi-comic potential, but while his playing has its absurdist qualities, there’s an edge to his vocabulary of strange growls and muffled elephant roars that ensures things never tip into wackiness.

Marks and Tucker keep him on his toes: although he plays a modified child-size kit, the drummer produces a tremendous amount of sound, from thunderous tom volleys to hissing cymbals that during ‘A Dog Called Sooner’ form a vicious blur with Tucker’s sheet metal guitar. For a moment, the listener could be forgiven for thinking she’s put on a Xasthur record by accident. Perhaps it’s just me, but I can hear a hint of black metal – albeit via Robert Fripp - to Tucker’s swooping E-bow guitar feature on ‘Harwich End’. When Tomlinson and Marks come back in, the mood is dark and stormy, the trombone spitting foul liquids over dampened gongs and bowls. The later tracks are more kinetic, from the good natured barney of ‘Very Fetching’ to the vigorous scrub down of ‘… and send it to: - ’. The closing ‘IT crawled out of a cabbage’ features some quite outrageous trombone effects over rambunctious clatter. Serious fun.