Django Bates Beloved – Confirmation

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Django Bates’ 2010 trio album, Beloved Bird, was a revelation. Its audacious dismantling of Charlie Parker’s compositions only to reform them into startling new, shifting forms was exciting and inspirational. Now the same trio (with Petter Eldh on bass and Peter Bruun on drums) are back with a new album, Confirmation.

This time there are a mixture of Parker pieces and Bates originals. The opening title track is as good an example as any of how this ingenious trio work. The familiar Parker melody is affectionately transformed into a poly-rhythmic, tempo shifting, kaleidoscope of ideas – at one moment a brash series of chordal stabs, then suddenly a delicate witty aside punctuates the frenzy, and then the whole piece slows down to a gorgeous, tentative meditation, before the melody is once more stated in all its original witty extravagance.

Throughout this album the three players demonstrate an uncanny telepathic understanding of exactly what is needed, responding immediately to what the others are playing while contributing their own unique voice to the evolving piece.

Almost at the end of the album there is a lovely little surprise – a charming vocal version of A House Is Not A Home. Ashley Slater joins the trio with a delightful, fragile interpretation of the beautiful song. As so often with this trio’s arrangements, there is a delectable dessert in the coda, in this case the extended, repeated ‘godnight’.

John Fordham, in the Guardian, gives the album 5 stars:-

Django Bates has done it again. In 2010, he received rapturous cheers for his Beloved Bird album, dedicated to bebop sax genius Charlie Parker. This is the five-star follow-up, also with the young Danish bass and drums team of Petter Eldh and Peter Bruun, but now a more even mix of covers and Bates’ own themes.

I particularly like Sebastian Scotney’s insightful short LondonJazz piece:-

‘Joyful, insouciant and insanely clever’ are the adjectives chosen by liner-note writer Evan Parker to describe the way pianist Django Bates has ‘reconsidered, fragmented and thoroughly “Djangoised”’ the melodies and harmonies on Confirmation.

 

The last verb is probably the most significant: success in jazz is widely thought to depend on finding an individual voice, and the use of a musician’s name as shorthand meaningfully encapsulating a particular approach is thus the highest form of compliment that can be paid to a practitioner.

 

…The trio addresses Charlie Parker material with the same mix of intensity and adventurousness that made the album’s predecessor so compelling; it also plays six Bates originals with all the spiky, nervy but somehow utterly appropriate verve and wit that their originality and eccentricity demand.

Also good is Cormac Larkin in the Irish Times:-

Possessed (and that is the word) of one of the most fertile musical imaginations, influential English pianist and band leader Django Bates is an anarchist who chose the piano as his principle means of making noise. As a composer and serial instigator, Bates’s real instrument is the ensemble itself. Belovèd, his current working trio, is an intensely creative unit, attuned to the leader’s concept.

Daniel Spicer in BBC Music captures the group dynamics well:-

The rhythm section of Bruun and Eldh does a staggering job of matching and anticipating Bates’ synaptic-fast soliloquies. On tracks like Parker’s Donna Lee and Bates’ We Are Not Lost, We Are Simply Finding Our Way, the trio locks into a stumbling lurch that feels like a sailor returning to ship after a night’s shore-leave, but nonetheless hangs together with a rolling momentum and a maddening logic that highlights the sharply crafted accuracy underpinning the madcap approach. Moreover, the trio brings Bates’ vision to life with such an intuitive group-mind that it’s nearly impossible to tell where the writing ends and group improvisation begins.

 

Ask anyone making jazz today and they’ll probably tell you that that effortless synergy of composition and extemporisation is the very essence of the music. For Django Bates Belovèd it feels as natural as asking a bird to fly.

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Treacherous Orchestra – Origins

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I’m a bit late to the party on this one, but somehow (I can’t remember how) I came across the Treacherous Orchestra, the most exiting folk band I’ve heard since discovering Bellowhead.

The Orchestra’s debut album, Origins – released in February this year – is spectacular. It’s full of invigorating music to delight and enrapture, to encourage the most lifeless of toes to start tapping. When you read about the band members you begin to understand why the music is rich with unexpected influences that blend together perfectly.

Robin Denselow in his Guardian piece describes the music nicely:-

An album of rousing fusion work from the vibrant Scottish folk scene, where every musician seems to play in a variety of very different bands. Treacherous Orchestra are a brave and, at times, very loud 11-piece folk big band… It’s a largely acoustic lineup that includes two pipers, two fiddlers, two percussionists (drum kit and bodhrán), along with accordion, banjo, acoustic and sometimes electric guitar. They are influenced by rock as well as traditional Celtic styles…They switch [at times] from riffs to a reggae stomp, or to the grand and lyrical Celtic melody of Easter Island, driven on by pipes and whistles.

Rob Adams in his The Herald Scotland piece says about the debut album:-

If their name suggests danger, skulduggery or something not to be trusted, fear not. Treacherous Orchestra are actually quite a cuddly aggregation, an 11-piece formed on Glasgow’s traditional music session scene who have forged a reputation for exuberant live performances where sitting still is not an option. That exuberance comes across on this debut album. There’s a joyful swagger to tracks such as the tightly executed, crisply punctuated Superfly with its mixture of fleet-fingered traditional tune playing and big grooving heft. As a band, they’re not afraid to acknowledge influences: strains of Wolfstone, Shooglenifty and various prog rock bands filter through the Scottish, Irish and Eastern European traditions. The playing is faultless and the ensemble dynamics, with occasionally added swelling strings, are impressive…

Mike Hough says in bright young folk:-

With backgrounds in bands as luminous as Shooglenifty, the Peatbog Fairies and Salsa Celtica, the artists bring a wide range of talents to this all-instrumental project. Origins is their impressive debut album.

 

Easter Island and Sea of Clouds are beautiful, dreamy melodic pieces conjuring images both of sun-kissed Pacific shores but also of the Scottish Isles. March of the Troutsmen has a heavy rock sound, with an ominous opening and overtones of Metallica.

 

Look East is a stark contrast, being an upbeat number, blending fiddles with Jazz sensibilities, resulting in a toe-tapping, irresistible and ever-so-slightly manic dance track. Similarly exciting is Superfly, although in contrast this tune is driven by fast, energetic pipes. The energy builds into a wild, swirling maelstrom of bagpipes.

This stunning debut album is very highly recommended. Give it a try.

Herts Jazz Festival 2012

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Some brief notes…

Alyn Shipton says* in his 5 star review of the Herts Jazz Festival in The Times:-

This young festival is only in its second year, but it deserves already to be ranked as one of Britain’s finest and most high quality jazz events.

Shipton quite rightly focuses on what was the highlight of the festival for me:-

It helps to have a masterpiece at the heart of the programme. Reuniting the pianist Stan Tracey and the tenor saxophonist Bobby Wellins for Tracey’s Under Milk Wood suite – 47 years after they first recorded it – brilliantly recreated the intense musical atmosphere for Dylan Thomas’s words

 

The band included three generations of Tracey. Stan’s son Clark played drums, his grandson Ben read Thomas’s text. His fluent voice captured the music in the poetry almost as effectively as Richard Burton’s definitive recording

I thought that Ben Tracey as the narrator was a revelation – providing what for me is now the definitive narration for Stan’s piece, really bringing it alive.

The Milk Wood performance was preceded by a short duo set by Stan and Bobby. The natural creative interplay between these masters was wonderful to watch.

Other highlights of the festival for me were:-

  • Alyn Shipton interviewing the irrepressible, hilarious Alan Barnes;
  • The European Jazz Ensemble where Alan Skidmore and Clark Tracey were on particularly fine form;
  • The Zoe Rahman Quartet playing superb arrangements, helped by the great flute playing of Rowland Sutherland;
  • The Three Tenors (Art Themen, Mornington Lockett, and Brandon Allen) on fantastic form, spurring each other on to ever more creative heights;
  • Clark Tracey’s Tribute to Art Blakey – it was great to hear the classic Blakey arrangements played with such skill;
  • Troyka (Kit Downes, Chris Montague, and Joshua Blackmore) showing just how expansive and versatile a trio can be (at one moment an aggressive heavy rock feel, the next a subtle whispered rhythmic interplay);
  • Then the relaxed closing set from two superb musicians: Martin Taylor and Alan Barnes (exquisite playing on clarinet).

Truly one of ‘Britain’s finest and most high quality jazz events’.

Cambridge Film Festival 2012

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And so another successful Cambridge Film Festival drew to a close yesterday. I’m already missing it…

Here are some very quick thoughts on this year’s experience.

Lead by the inspirational director Tony Jones and his team of programmers, this important, ambitious festival prides itself on bringing a wide-range of quality films to Cambridge. What is more, with its many dedicated and talented helpers and supporters, the festival can boast a warm and welcoming atmosphere. This year the festival spirit was greatly enhanced by the sterling work of the independent festival publication Take One which, thanks to its hard-working team, published reviews of all the festival films (online and in freely distributed print copies), as well as interviews and informative features. In addition, Toby Miller (the one-man cinema encyclopedia) and his team at the Bums On Seats radio programme provided some excellent analysis and interviews.

This year I was away from the festival for almost three days so wasn’t able to see as many films as usual, but I still managed to get a fair few under my belt. My favourites (in order of watching) were:-

About Elly: outstanding. Directed by Asghar Farhadi (A Separation) this made a big impression – a beautifully observed study of truth;

Barbara: a sense of authenticity; a mesmerising, charismatic performance from the lead; and a well crafted story;

The Temptation of St Tony: here is my short review in Take One (‘a film which is fresh, bold, and stimulating…’)

War Witch: shocking, moving; very effective use of voice-over; devastating subjectivity;

A Cube of Sugar: here is my short review in Take One (‘a delightful, engaging, and insightful film.’)

Bestiaire: I’ll need to take another look at this, but I was intrigued: no narrative as such, lots of long static oddly framed shots of animals; final shot is just brilliant;

V.O.S. (part of the Catalan strand): described as a film within a film, but it’s more subtle and interesting than that. This film manages to take an affectionately ironic look at the romantic comedy without losing a nice lightness of touch;

The Lodger (part of the Hitchcock strand): I had not seen this before – lovely to see it for the first time on the big screen. I liked the Nitin Sawhney score, apart from the two songs (which failed to work – quite spectacularly);

Salvatore Giuliano (part of the Francesco Rosi strand): last year the festival introduced me to the wonderful films of a director I was unaware of – Jos Stelling – this year I discovered some of the great films of Francesco Rosi. Salvatore was the best of the three I saw – from the striking opening shot I was gripped. Rossi doesn’t look for easy answers, but explores the complex, multi-faceted nature of corruption;

Psycho (part of the Hitchcock strand): this is one of my favourite Hitchcock’s, which is glorious on the big screen. I can even forgive the psychiatrist’s exposition at the end, since it leads up to that brilliant final shot of Anthony Perkins;

Bert Stern: Original Madman: interesting documentary that didn’t try and simplify the protagonist; felt like an honest portrait;

Vertigo (part of the Hitchcock strand): again, great to see on the big screen. For me this is flawed Hitchcock, but there is still so much to admire;

Indignados: even though this free-wheeling documentary/drama was not entirely successful, its style and endless imagination had me fascinated;

The Mattei Affair (part of the Rosi strand): a compelling lead performance; gripping story;

Blackmail (part of the Hitchcock strand): pristine respored print from the BFI and wonderful live accompaniment from John Sweeney;

The Birds (part of the Hitchcock strand): this is one of the Hitchcock’s which I keep coming back to and which gets better and better; visual effects may be somewhat unconvincing now, but there are some fantastic sequences; great use of silence, and an effective, bold, bleak ending;

5 Broken Cameras: gripping, powerful, and moving documentary. A few simple comments made by a boy near the end are haunting;

The Ring (part of the Hitchcock strand): one of the real highlights of the festival – Hitchcock on fantastic form, and we were lucky enough to have the great Neil Brand providing some of the best silent film accompaniment I’ve ever heard. This performance got a well-deserved standing ovation. Simply fantastic;

A Trip To The Moon + Extraordinary Voyage: another festival highlight – a packed Sunday morning screening of the beautifully restored Georges Melies film followed by a fascinating documentary on the filmmaker and the restoration of his most famous film.

The only real disappointment of the festival was Holy Motors: I was so looking forward to this, but apart from a few very good episodes was mostly pointless, at times dull, and lacking in any meaningful originality.

The Temptation of St Tony

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Here is my review of this film published in Take One magazine:-

The deliciously intriguing, witty opening – a peculiar funeral procession which is rudely interrupted in a most unexpected manner – sets the tone for this Estonian curiosity. It’s the beginning of a bizarre story which follows Tony, a middle manager who seems in a constant state of bewilderment, on a series of strange and ever more troubling encounters.

 

The narrative is full of unexpected and outlandish elements, as the story moves from the eccentric to something much more gruesome. The film is clearly inspired by, and makes reference to, a number of other filmmakers: Buñuel, in its sense of the surreal and an ever present potential for the unexpected; Lynch in its weird and unsettling juxtapositions, and its palpable sense of menace beneath the everyday; Roy Andersson in the precisely composed scenes, with their dead-pan humour; even Bela Tarr in some of those slow tracking shots over rain sodden earth (thanks to the striking black and white photography of Mart Taniel).

 

Somehow, though, writer/director Veiko Õunpuu brings together these elements in a coherent, distinctive modern fable on morality. The film explores the dilemmas and confusions in making moral choices, both in relation to the wider social setting of capitalism and its corporate imperatives, but also more importantly in the personal predicaments that Tony, our non-descript modern-day Saint Anthony, faces. Taavi Eelmaa is perfect casting as Tony, his face subtlety registering every possible kind of bafflement as he tries to negotiate his way through the strange, almost Kafkaesque, world he finds himself in. As the story descends ever more into the nightmarish, satanic ‘forest dark’ of the Dante quote captioned at the start of the film, the moral choices become ever more confusing and troubling, and the nature of goodness more elusive.

 

THE TEMPTATION OF ST TONY is a film which is fresh, bold, and stimulating. It is also deliberately provocative: the final, unforgettable incident in the story – reminiscent of a notorious Peter Greenaway scene – is both grotesque and distastefully ironic, but perhaps the most fitting finale for this contemporary ‘saint’. Whatever your reaction, THE TEMPTATION OF ST TONY is guaranteed to stimulate the most lively of post-film discussions.

 

A Cube Of Sugar

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Here is my review of this film published in Take One magazine:-

Iranian cinema has given us so many great films – including those made by Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Jafar Panahi, and last year’s fantastic A SEPARATION by Asghar Farhadi – that expectations are always raised when you come across another Iranian contribution. Thankfully, Seyyed Reza Mir-Karimi’s finely crafted A CUBE OF SUGAR can stand proudly in such illustrious company.

 

The basic framework of the story is very simple – an extended Iranian family gather in preparation for a family wedding. Within this structure, however, there is a tightly interwoven network of individual stories. The plot is so carefully constructed, and the characters so well portrayed, that the mini dramas played out in this family gathering are enthralling. The film deftly interweaves many storylines, while taking the time to observe those tiny but emotionally momentous incidents – a silent exchange between an old married couple; an excited child finding that he has grown slightly taller; the patriarch of the family telling a child an enchanting story.

 

Particularly striking is the cinematography of Hamid Khozui-Abyaneh. The whole film is suffused in a warm, golden hue; the hand-held camera expertly weaves and glides, criss-crosses the rooms of the family home in its carefully choreographed observation of the unfolding stories. Then there are the magical interludes where we are invited to step out of time and immerse ourselves in the vivid sensations of the moment. One such scene stands out – where the bride-to-be, on a swing, sweeps gently through the air, repeatedly reaching for an apple: this becomes a moment of exquisite sensuality, like an Impressionist painting brought to life.

 

As with A SEPARATION, this film gives us a view of everyday life in modern Iran that is vastly different to that conjured up by television news reports. In A CUBE OF SUGAR you get to see a more humane and rounded view of this society. It provides a vivid and moving portrait of family life – the humour and infectious laughter, the troubled relationships, the moments of tenderness and contemplation, sadness and loss. Like all good cinema, it is both universal and particular – a delightful, engaging, and insightful film.

 

It doesn’t get much better than this – the Herts Jazz Festival 2012…

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As well as the Cambridge Film Festival, I am also very excited about the upcoming Herts Jazz Festival, which is taking place at Campus West in Welwyn Garden City over the weekend of 14-16 September.

The host of this event – Herts Jazz Club – holds a very special place in my affections. It is one of those cultural treasures where the bottom line is not the maximisation of profits, but in bringing the very best jazz players to an appreciative audience in a relaxed, friendly atmosphere. The club has been in existence since the late sixties. Tony May helped run the club for many years and writes on the Herts Jazz website:-

We booked not only the greats of British modern jazz –Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Scott, Peter King, Dick Morrissey, Stan Tracey, Tony Coe, Jimmy Skidmore, Alan Skidmore, Bill le Sage, Stan Robinson, Roy Budd and many many more – but also many visiting American artists.

So, this tiny club in North Hertfordshire played host to such world famous names as : Sonny Stitt, Al Cohn, James Moody, Mark Murphy, Eddie “ Lockjaw “ Davis, Jimmy Witherspoon, Art Farmer, Joe Locke, Tal Farlow, Herb Geller, Bill Perkins, Charles McPherson, Clifford Jarvis, Jean Toussaint, Benny Golson and many many others. It was truly amazing. They all provided us with unforgettable evenings of great jazz – at close range. Nothing can ever equate with the thrill we felt in being involved in the organisation of this.

In 2009, the indefatigable duo of Clark Tracey and Sylvia Rae Tracey took over the running of the Herts Jazz, and continued in the tradition of booking musicians of the highest calibre. A look at some of the musicians booked at the club for the next season shows just how high the quality is: Stan Tracey, Mark Armstrong, Sam Mayne, Mornington Lockett, Simon Allen, Andrew Clyndert, the guv’nor himself Clark Tracey, David Newton, Alec Dankworth, Jim Mullen, Don Weller, Steve Melling, Dave Barry, Alan Barnes, Nigel Price, Barry Green, Tim Lapthorn, Bobby Wellins, Gary Smulyan, Alex Garnett, Christine Tobin, Simon Spillett, Mark Nightingale, Tony Kofi, etc!

The September weekend will be the Club’s second jazz festival since its 2009 re-launch. Last year’s festival was a huge success, with audience and musicians alike saying how much they enjoyed the warm festival atmosphere. The line-up this year looks like its drawn from my personal list of favourite musicians, including as it does: Stan Tracey, Bobby Wellins, David Newton, Alan Barnes, Steve Melling, Zoe Rahman, Leon Greening, Martin Taylor, Gareth Williams, Kit Downes, Clark Tracey, Art Theman, Mornington Lockett, Spike Wells and many many more.

I’m particularly looking forward to The Three Tenors with Art Themen, Brandon Allen (standing in for Don Weller who is sadly still recuperating after his recent major surgery), and Mornington Lockett – now that’s what I call a front line-up! I’m very pleased that the fabulous band Troyka have been booked (Kit Downes, Chris Montague, Josh Blackmore) – a trio that I’ve only heard so far on their brilliant CDs. Zoe Rahman is a Club favourite (the last packed gig at the Club was just fantastic); and the great Alan Barnes is always well appreciated by our audience. Clark Tracey’s Tribute to Art Blakey looks like it will a particularly special event, with a band that includes the big tenor sound of Jean Toussaint and has Guy Barker on trumpet. It’s good to see another Club favourite, Martin Shaw, on trumpet in David Newton’s Quintet, and lovely to welcome back the great bass player Laurence Cottle in Gareth Williams’ trio (Gareth was also a recent big hit at the Club). And there are so many more superb musicians….

…Including the man who is without doubt the top of my list, the patron of Herts Jazz and Godfather of British Jazz himself – Stan Tracey. This is a musician who never ceases to inspire, enthral, and astonish me with his witty, inventive, muscular playing. Not only that, he is the most modest and unassuming legend you will ever meet, amply demonstrated in this short recent interview:-

Stan’s appearance at the festival this year is particularly special for me since he will be playing his famous Under Milk Wood suite – first committed to record in 1965 and regarded by many as the best British jazz recording of all time. It is also the first jazz record which really captured my imagination. So it will be a great pleasure to hear this suite performed live, with the wonderful Bobby Wellins (who played on that 1965 record, and will be playing a duo with Stan prior to Under Milk Wood) on tenor. As an added treat, Stan’s grandson Ben will be reading extracts from the Dylan Thomas play on which the suite is based. He made such an impression when he visited the Club recently to read extracts from another Dylan Thomas favourite – A Child’s Christmas in Wales – as part of a performance of Stan’s latest suite of the same name. Ben’s authoritative and sensitive interpretation drew universal praise from all who attended.

So, this year’s Herts Jazz Festival promises to be a truly fantastic weekend of music. It really is too good to miss.

I hope to see you there!