Manchester Jazz Festival, Tuesday, 30 July - John Ellis, Billy Moon, Moss Project

John Ellis

John Ellis Trio
Bridgewater Hall Foyer 

It’s a song-based set of the familiar and not so familiar. His first words are, “I am here, don’t reject me”, which is not so much about the condition of the exposed performer as the Creator reminding that He’s available for reassurance, feeling slightly hurt at the neglect of His subjects. It sets the tone of the show: gospel fervour, trance-like concentration, inward-looking but willing to reach out. This trio performance by a Manchester pianist/singer who has always been there, and who, like the Creator, has sometimes been taken for granted, is a triumph and a revelation.  

It’s so spontaneous that the accompanying musicians - the Turners Pete and Rob, on bass and drums respectively - watch and listen with attentiveness, and perhaps a little wonder. Ellis follows the inspiration of the moment. So the next song is ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’, the most subversive statement of atheism ever to gain entry to the Great American Songbook, and Ellis is simultaneously channeling the cool of swinging hipster Mose Allison, whilst essaying the gospel cadences of Abdullah Ibrahim. 

The hour-long set is halfway through when Ellis, who has been following the flow in an unbroken sequence up till now, turns to address the respectable patrons of Bridgewater Hall for the first time. “Dirty fracking bankers,” he says. “Dirty fracking bankers,” he repeats. He seems to have latched onto the phrase as the best way to shake off his self-induced trance. “Dirty fracking bankers,” he announces for a third time, before going on to profess undying love for the Stone Roses and praising their songs as the culmination of the folk tradition. He proceeds to sing a rapturous ‘Shoot You Down’ and follows this, again following the principle of ironic juxtaposition, with ‘If I Had A Hammer’. 

No, this is astonishing actually. No one has achieved such feats of transformation with songs - turning glib platitudes into sublime statements of the human condition - since Nina Simone. More than once, I was reminded of the Nina & Piano album, and my praise doesn’t come any higher than that.     

It was impossible to predict what he was going to do, or say, next. What did he do next? ‘Norwegian Wood’. There was always veiled sleaze in the song, sure, but Ellis, with his ability to strip away the petty guise of anodyne pop, conveys the full atrophied spirituality and mania of Lennon’s original. He achieves this by dispelling all the smug jollity to reveal the full depth of self-abasement and the stupidity of a random act of destructiveness. Musically, he adds Afro-Cuban rhythms and a Yoruban chant. 

This is dark, dark, dark, and Ellis above all seeks to entertain. So he chooses to send everyone off happy with a favourite from My Fair Lady, ‘Wouldn’t It Be Loverly’, and, for good measure, gives it a ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’ bounce. But Ellis being Ellis, he still manages to illuminate a human truth that eluded every previous version. “All I want is a room somewhere…” How simple! How modest! How impossible!   

Billy Moon, Moss Project 
Festival Pavilion Teepee 

Billy Moon

A string quartet - an instant signifier of intimacy and melancholia - A.A. Milne readings, tinkly piano and teacups. Billy Moon are very English, and my response is very English too, which is, essentially, to blush and say, “Not now, old chap, there’s a time and a place, don’t you know?” I consider I have a high tolerance of twee, but Billy Moon really push the envelope of twee. Having said that, I’m in a minority, and a mesmerised crowd gave Matthew Bourne, Seaming Tu, Olivia Moore and Semay Wu - who, collectively, are Billy Moon - a rapturous ovation. 

Reciting over music is a problem area for me, I admit, but Moss Project propose a novel way of combining music and literature with their new album, What Do You See When You Close Your Eyes? It’s a CD encased within the hard covers of a book, and in the book are short stories by distinguished writers, with each story a response to an original piece of music contained within. It’s a brilliant way of overcoming the dread functionality of the CD, and turning it into an object of art on par with an LP. I’ve read the stories, and can honestly say that many of them are wonderful. 

Moss Project

For this performance, Moss Project have enlisted an author to read the stories between numbers. I’m getting ready to feel awkward and English again. 

In the event, it works brilliantly. This because the author, Lawrence Norfolk, is a personable fellow who reads well. His delivery and ease have presumably been honed by book readings up and down the land. Cleverly, he cherry-picks the very best stories, namely ‘The Angel’, his own ‘Caravans’, and ‘Bubble’. But most of all it works because Moss Project are on cracking form, and play with an intensity and assurance I’ve not seen in them before. Alice Zawadzki’s violin has become a beautiful foil for her voice, and is similarly passionate and adept. Moss Freed has assimilated the Pat Metheny and John McLaughlin influences into a distinctive freewheeling style: clean and lustrous and sharp-cutting. Marek Dorcik subdivides each beat into clipped fractions, in the best funky manner. I might miss the wonderful Ruth Goller, but stand-in bassist Kevin Glasgow rises to the challenge magnificently. 

And the relationship between text and music becomes more apparent at close range. One can more readily appreciate the darkness that lies beneath the lightness and buoyancy of ‘Bubble’. 

Manchester Jazz Festival, Monday, 29 July 2013 - Times 4, European Sunrise

Times 4 

Festival Pavilion Teepee

The banners for MJF in the Festival Pavilion Teepee announce the inclusive nature of jazz..They figure a list of music categories that feed the broad stream of jazz, including 'pop' and ‘grunge’ and ‘urban’. At least ‘bebop’ (fifth down the list) has some accepted meaning in a jazz context. This well-intended initiative skirts around the major problem, which is how to overcome the negative associations of the j-word. My modest proposal would be to strike out ’jazz’ whenever it appears and substitute, say, ‘Acid Phwumba’. It has as much meaning as ‘urban’ and is a lot more fun. The 2014 Manchester Acid Phwumba Festival would really be worth going to see. 

This is essentially a marketing issue and may hold interest for students of linguistic philosophy. The point is, the music itself is in great shape.     

‘Folk’, too unfashionable to get a look-in on the banners, nevertheless provides the inspiration for Times 4, the group led by Ken Marley, who play to a packed Teepee on Monday afternoon. 

Neil Yates

It’s a supergroup of leaders - Neil Yates, the trumpeter who has made folk-jazz crossover his own; drummer Dave Hassell, the power behind Apitos; Munch Manship, veteran saxophonist of this parish - except, that is, for the leader. Ken Marley is a a stalwart timekeeper on bass, a  journeyman bassist, who plays standards behind the guest soloists at the monthly session at The Broadoak, amongst other venues. Today however, the Great American Songbook has been ditched in favour of what might be called the Great Northumbrian Minstrelsy. 

This is the great thing about MJF: it gives an outlet for musicians to realise cherished projects and provides a space for their most heartfelt personal music. 

Ken Marley

The first surprise is that the bass has taken backseat to a set of bagpipes. The tradition we’re concerned with here is the folk music of the British Isles, and it’s a joy to see these expert musicians transfer their skills from one idiom to another. So Neil Yates applies the distilled beauty he took from Miles to the rolls and turns of Celtic music. Munch Manship confines himself to flute for the pipe tunes. 

Munch Manship

The flute in folk is a bugbear of mine, actually. The solo flautist warbling arpeggios behind a singer is a cliche of the sixties Folk Revival. (It’s partly what makes Paddy On The Road, Christy Moore’s officially suppressed debut album, so unlistenable. But I digress.) Whereas Manship comprehensively rehabilitates the instrument, dovetailing and weaving in and out of simple melodies with the more complex harmonies of, ah, Acid Phwumba.  

Dave Hassell 

Dave Hassell, who has been known to sit in at the Oddfellows folk session (see dyverse, passim), uses the occasion to unveil some of unusual percussion accessories, including a fetching washboard cum tie. He clicks away with dancing counter-rhythms.

In Marley’s hands, the bagpipes and the bass serve the same underpinning function. There is no appreciable decline in charm and enjoyment when the band revert to bluesy hard bop. Now Manship reveals his mature style on tenor saxophone, which has the unaffected, heartbreaking, full lyricism of the greatest swing saxophonists. The pipes call for a last time, as a prelude for ‘Times Up’, a booting exercise in hard bop. 

We can call off the hunt for the perfect folk-jazz synthesis. It hasn’t been done so well since the heyday of Pentangle. 

European Sunrise
Royal Northern College of Music

I don’t think the majority of the audience know what to expect from the event billed as Take Five: Europe Live!: European Sunrise. A pre-gig discussion hosted by Steve Mead informs that Take Five is a course for handpicked musicians to learn more about publishing, funding and communication strategies, and, as more than a side-product, make some music together. The scheme has lately been expanded to include musicians from the continent. European Sunrise represent this year’s crop and includes musicians from Poland, France, Netherlands, France, Italy, Norway and the UK.

Daniel Herskedal

There’s a sense of anticipation as the players slouch on. Daniel Herskedal emits some exploratory sounds on tuba, and establishes an open soundscape which, spurred by bassist Andy Champion and drummer Marcos Baggiani, develops into quite a work-out, with soloists Arun Ghosh and Airelle Besson riding elegantly over the  pummelling rhythms. This is the closest the Sunrisers come to a jam (albeit a superior jam). 

Piotr Damasiewicz

 Piotr Damasiewicz comes on stage empty-handed and, conduction-style, creates sound by pointing at his comrades. The sonic wash of sound produced takes purpose and shape when Damasiewicz blows his trumpet, which is a fierce, expressive instrument, and hair-raising in primal power. 

Marcin Masecki

If I heard right, the title of pianist Marcin Masecki’s piece translates as ‘Rotten Bag’. The most through composed piece of the evening, conducted from the front by Masecki, ‘Rotten Bag’ is an anarchic parody of marching music, and sounds as if Masecki, a Pole, has been drinking from the same fountain as Willem Breuker. 

Airelle Besson

Things are getting interesting now. The dawn of European Sunrise is beginning to blaze in full glory. Everyone in the hall realises how they had stumbled onto something extraordinary: a band of nine top-flight jazzmen, and eight formidable composers (yes, Andy Champion is a formidable composer too, but he was only added to the line-up at the last minute: I almost wrote last minuet). 

Marcos Baggiani

Drummer Marcos Baggiani’s offering has revolutionary intent. It opens with floating chords utilising the rich timbres of the ensemble and instils an atmosphere of concentrated stillness as Masecki compulsively repeats notes in the top register of the piano, which become a gorgeous melody. Champion picks up the theme. Dolorous horns enter like squiffy mariachi. Guillaume Perret blows a keening, hard-edged tenor saxophone, which leads into a passage of group improvisation. The composer, behind his kit, calibrates the changes in emotional temperature with precision. 

At this point my notes get hard to read (I was writing in pitch dark) and become more excitable. From the scrawl, I can make out this: “Forget the business school shit, catharsis is where it’s at!”  

The sound is clamourous and exultant now, which is a sign that we’ve segued into ‘Icarus’ by Arun Ghosh. Excitement and exultancy is the stock-in-trade of Arun Ghosh. 

Arun Ghosh

The mix of culture and nationality is seamless, and yet the distinct identity of much of the music does set one wondering about the relationship between music and geography. Trumpeter Airelle Besson is French but offers impressions of Bogota, Colombia. The musical worlds coalesce in a sweet dirge that somehow evokes the history of both cultures. And how to pigeon-hole a citizen of the world like Arun Ghosh, “conceived in Bombay and raised in Manchester”, who somehow integrates old world elegance, Manc swagger and urban Asian clamour in one person. I was especially impressed by Ghosh’s discipline and commitment to the project, knowing what a demanding taskmaster he can be as leader. 

Chris Sharkey

Chris Sharkey - I would like to reiterate - is not simply a grunge guitarist. Taking Besson’s theme as a starting point, he produces ethereal Bill Frisell-like chimes, which tinkle and resolve into a more urgent piece, spliced by a dangerous riff which subsides into simmering tension. The horns enter to provide a satisfying climax. 

As it stands, European Sunrise strike a perfect balance between the individual and the collective, and very often blur the distinction, as when conduction techniques extend an individual solo with ensemble blowing. And the music flows seamlessly, not in patchwork style but as an integral whole. 

Guillaume Perret

The last piece of the evening comes from Guillaume Perret. With its criss-crossing melodies and pile-driving rhythms, and with Arun Ghosh mirroring and doubling the saxophonist’s intricate accents on clarinet, it served as a conventionally rousing finale. 

What can I say? The highlight of the Festival so far. I hope and trust that this won’t be the last we hear of European Sunrise, and that they very soon reproduce the magic in the studio. These guys have got it.

Manchester Jazz Festival, first weekend

Well, I’ve been having a half-arsed Manchester Jazz Festival so far (I write on the Monday following the first weekend on the Festival). I landed from Madrid on Friday, July 26, and could just have conceivably caught BBC Introducing at Manchester Jazz Festival, to be broadcast on Jazz on 3, but I decided to cool my heels, and so I can’t report on tomorrow’s jazz stars Metamorphic, Dominic J Marshall, Moonlight Saving Time and Twelveheads. 

Everything at the flat, I was relieved to find, was exactly as I remembered it, and the same might be said of MJF. It’s a Festival with a special identity: esoteric new music perhaps (and not strictly jazz) with the emphasis on listener-friendly creativity from obscure corners. 

Trish Clowes

On Saturday I received a good report of Yazz Ahmed from recently retired jazz promoter Denis Dundon, outside the Festival Teepee. He was particularly effusive about vibes player Lewis Wright. Dundon recalled how, when he presented Wright at his club, the combined total age of everyone in the band came to less than the age of a single member of the audience! He played a blinder, apparently (“Jim Hunt will have to watch his back”) and Asaf Sirkis (not mentioned in the publicity) excelled on the Arabic-tinged material, distinguished by Ahmed’s fine melodies and intricate writing. Dave Woonton came by like the March Hare, complaining that they were people leaving Trish Clowes’ Tangent, and the empty seats at the sell-out gig were were not being filled, and he didn’t have a ticket. Fortunately, I did, and she from what I was hearing, she was sounding very good indeed. 

At close quarters, she was excellent. Trish Clowes is a warm-toned tenor saxophonist with a feel for real straightahead jazz. Whereas guitarist Chris Montague’s terrain was bop and beyond. They shared the fertile middle ground but then he was take off on a fire-breathing guitar solo a la John McLaughlin, from another time frame altogether. It worked beautifully. 

And then came Ultra High Flamenco to ease my transition from balmy Madrid to turbulent Manchester.

Ultra High Flamenco

I will say here that the inhabitants of Madrid know how to extract the maximum pleasure out of life, and that goes equally for the serious musicians. Ultra High Flamenco sounded like the gypsies had taken over the conservatoire, and there was real fire and anarchy behind the impeccable musicianship, let loose by Alexis Lefevre’s highflying violin and Jose Quevedo’s snapping Spanish guitar, driven by Pablo Martin’s gut-strung double bass and Paquito Gonzalez’s tactile percussion (he concentrated on cajon, that percussion box to sit on and tap, but he even played the kit with bare hands). Ultra High Flamenco put the ‘head’ into ‘hedonism’ and deservedly won a standing ovation. 

(Incidentally, I notice UHF played Ciculo de Bellas Artes in Madrid less than 24 hours earlier, so they must have caught a later flight than me. Six o’ clock that morning, announced the English-speaking Martin from the stage. Could they have played with the same manic intensity if they weren’t super exhausted?)   

Sunday afternoon was taken up by Emilia Martensson with Ivo Neame from the Kairos stet accompanying on piano. Someone once sent me And So It Goes by Martensson in a batch of Babel (a previous batch of Babel), and I was impressed by the contrast of Martensson with virtually everything else. 

Sir John Soane Museum: upper...

... and going down

I thought of the Sir John Soane Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. Do you know it? A typical Victorian eccentric, Soane collected art and anthropological curiosities and designed his house as a metaphor for civilisation. The sunlit, well-ordered upper floors represented enlightenment with every floor downwards becoming progressively darker and more claustrophobic. Corridors turn into labyrinths and the false walls confound the senses further. Suffice to say, the basement resembles Hammer House of Horror. 

Anyway in my analogy, Emilia’s CD occupied the sunlit upper space, whereas the other Babel releases descended downwards, with Bilbao Syndrome as the ultimate barbarity in the basement. For some reason, I couldn’t sustain the metaphor, and it wound up unfinished and unpublished. But say, isn’t Manchester Jazz Festival all sun-drenched and top floor? 

Emilia Martensson

Emilia Martensson is a personable singer of Swedish extraction whose many songwriting friends are talented up to a point. She loyally tried to represent them all, and was intermittently bewitching and sporadically captivating. Actually, I had to force myself to focus, and when I did, the lyric went something like “I shall dream my dreams by your side until morning comes…” and so I drifted off again. (I was struck by the encore, a song from the last Kairos 4tet, album, so perhaps Adam Waldman is the most talented of her circle.) Having said that, Martensson undoubtedly held the audience captive. She had help from the rain, which was beating a magnified tattoo on the canvas of the Teepee. 

I skipped Benoit Martiny Band, which might have been a mistake, and another heavy downpour, complete with sheets of lightning, frustrated my plan to see Kefaya on the evening. 

Bo's 70th Birthday Party

Chorlton Irish Centre, Wed. July 10

I can’t believe that Bo is 70. Did he lie about his age just so that Bob Jones would organise this party for him, which, naturally, turned into a glorious celebration of Manchester grassroots music? If you can imagine The Last Waltz transported to Chorlton, you’re getting close to the spirit of Bo’s 70th Birthday Party. 

Me, I first encountered Bo as the lynchpin of the Helen Watson Band in the eighties. He goes back further than that. The senior black musicians who, earlier in the evening, jam to ‘St Thomas’ recall Andy Hamilton’s story (the Windrush generation, making music away from the public gaze, purely for their own pleasure).

That’s the great thing about tonight. In a music scene that has become more, not less segregated with time, Bo skips the genres and refuses to acknowledge divisions. Integration is the watchword, and it’s grand to see this meeting of generations and cultures: of rastas (they were one or two there) digging the primal rock of Spider Mike King or the goodtime blues of Victor Brox. Or, conversely, a teddy boy (great mutton chops he had too) grooving to some great live reggae. 

Bo is the catalyst, the bassist who brings it all together and unites the crowd, musicians and music-lovers alike, in a warm glow of affection. To my knowledge his name has never been linked to a surname. He is always and forever simply Bo.

Who was there? Oh, there were jazzmen, beat-group veterans, reggae musicians from ska to dancehall, first and second generation hippies and the afore-mentioned Ted. I spotted Clive Hunte, Ed Kainyek, Kirsty Almeida and Franny Eubank. And they didn’t even get to play, such was the wealth of talent on hand. 

Reader’s voice. Right, so who was there that did play? 

Well, saxophonist Dave Roberts was joined by a tenor-man I didn’t recognise, but he looked older than Iain Dixon and younger than Harold Salisbury. 

Reader’s voice. That narrows the field then.  [Bob Jones writes: "The other sax player is Neil Shawhulme, who amongst other things plays with Dougie James' Soul Train.]

And there was Victor Brox, who, of course, is a Manchester legend, and someone who has paid starvation wages to more than a few gathered at Chorlton Irish Centre tonight. Indeed, he was joined on drums by his old compadre from Blues Train, Ian Starr. He offered spirited blues anarchy in the patented Brox style, with a spot of staccato, declamatory trumpet (perhaps his most eccentric feature). John Ellis sidled to the keyboard to finesse the sound, and Dave Lunt offered acerbic guitar licks in the best Albert King style.

Spider Mike King now. Certainly too wild to ever consider music as a ‘career’ or ‘business’ or any of those other soul-shrivelling words. I haven’t seen Spider Mike since the fondly remembered days of The Carpenters Arms bandbox in the eighties. There I identified his spindly, freak-friendly electric guitar style as the source of his power. Tonight, he restricts himself to acoustic, and leaves the electric licks to others, but he is every bit as untrammelled and dangerous. So I can only conclude that edginess and charisma are inbuilt in his personality. 

Spider Mike was joined by Dave Garson on drums. Now I remember Dave as a dude with snake eyes, wise to the ways of the world and cool to the point of cynicism. I had to do a double-take to recognise him as the Old Man of the Mountains (shaggy grey beard and all). And back then he was only helping me print some flyers (he's the chief of Logoprint, a printers in Slade Lane): this was the first I'd seen him in action on sticks, and playing behind Spider Mike King too! It was rock ’n’ roll in extremis. 

Then a complete change of gears when the flute player Mat Walklate offered a rambunctious set of traditional Irish tunes. This was when dancing broke out in earnest. Then, all too soon, a grand finale of ‘Use Me’ for a full group powered by supreme funky drummer Myke Wilson.   

Praise is due to Anthony Haller, whose expert and versatile time-keeping kept commendable order. But whenever Bo strapped on his bass, we could literally feel the love. We were all there for his sake, and basked in his warmth and unassuming authority. But how is it that Bo, unlike the rest of us, refuses to manifest any sign of the ageing process? Three score years and ten? It can’t be right.

A nice pic of Bo, by Dom Dudill, fiddler of the parish.

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