Friday, 31 July 2020

La Diversité: Last Train Jazz Essential Recordings #3

Until I stumbled across a secondhand copy of this 2017 release in Ray's, I'd only previously come across Belgian tenor saxophonist Nicolas Kummert on Flow, the 2015 outing from Drifter, fronted by labelmate Alexi Tuomarila. I'd seen the album promotions but not heard it, so my decision to exchange hard-earned wedge for it was based on the presence of mind-bogglingly talented Beninese guitarist, Lionel Loueke. That, and the reliably high-quality output of Edition Records - I hope their A&R team are on a seriously good bonus scheme!

I wasn't disappointed on first play, although this album does improve with repeated listening - two years down the line, it gets a regular spin on my HiFi. 

Though Kummert composed all the originals here, this album sounds much like a joint venture between the saxophonist and Loueke, who makes the most of the ample space he's allowed. Stripped-down duets like Gnossienne à deux and And what if we're not? crackle with so much jam-session like spontaneity that they're standout tracks on an album brimming with great compositions. And that's not to overlook the contributions of drummer Karl Jannuska and Nicolas Thys, whose driving double bass securely anchors the front men's free-flowing approach. 

This is a recording that resists pigeon-holing - by turns beautifully melodious, free, avant-garde, wistful... Kummert's tenor sound is simply irresistible throughout: clear tone coupled with precision of attack, occasional breathy overtones and overblowing. He and Loueke strike sparks off each other on every tune. 

We get two interpretations each of eccentric French classical composer Eric Satie's Gnossienne and Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. That the band makes the latter - decidedly overplayed in the media following the Canadian miserabalist's death - sound as fresh as it does here, is testament enough to the musicianship on display. And the band rocks out on Well be alright, which sounds like they had great fun recording.

If you don't have this in your collection, do yourself a favour and buy it now.

Thursday, 30 July 2020

Appeal: Save Kings Place

You know things are bad when a major venue like Kings Place has to fight for survival. I like this place a lot (see notes on my Links page) and it would be a big loss to live music if it closed - a place worth saving, indeed. 

If you can, please donate at

Saturday, 25 July 2020

Wind: Last Train Jazz Essential Recordings #2

If you didn't believe me before, you'll realise by now that I really did mean I'd be listing my essential recordings in no particular order... except that there is sort of a link between my #1, Coltrane's Sound, and #2 Ibrahim Maalouf's Wind - even if it's only in my own mind. 

Like other Maalouf albums, at least those I've heard since first encountering this 2012 release, this hangs together as a whole piece, as if written around a central theme. I wonder if his classical training is responsible for that. 

He composed this particular release on commission as the score for a 1927 silent film, La Proie du Vent (The Prey of the Wind). I haven't had the pleasure, but it's not a big leap of association to imagine this as a soundtrack. 

Normally, the strapline Original Soundtrack to the Motion Picture wouldn't inspire my ears to prick up. Fortunately, this doesn't carry that billing, but even if it did, this is one of those instances when my irrational prejudices get a well deserved kick in the teeth.

In July 2013, Jazzy G, a couple of other friends and I were heading for our second consecutive visit to the brilliant North Sea Jazz festival. Unlike the previous year, when work had meant I'd missed the Friday and had to catch up with the guys in Rotterdam on Saturday morning, I'd got my shit together and cleared my diary well in advance. This time, I stayed at Jazzy G's place on the Thursday night and we were all booked on the same flight Friday morning. 

We had a few drinks in town before heading back to Jazzy G's, where he put this album on the turntable. My first thought was: 

Miles? Er... no. That Miles-esque, under-stated approach to melody, timing and space, but... who is this? 

It's blue, for sure - this oozes melancholy in places, but those different, eastern-sounding notes... another kind of blue altogether, the like of which I'd never heard before. 

In classic Jazzy G fashion, he'd shelled out on the latest release by an artist we were about to see live. He brought the CD along, and it became a frequent spinner aboard the old barge we'd hired for accommodation. So I was well and truly hooked by the Saturday evening, when the band played most of the album and a few earlier tunes. The giant video projection revealed the secret to that amazing sound - the microtonal or four-valve trumpet invented by his father, classical trumpeter Nassim Maalouf, which makes it possible to play Arabic maqams on the trumpet.

And damn, can he play it! The guy has technique in spades. And you're unlikely ever to hear more gorgeously expressive, beautifully restrained trumpet playing than on tunes like Waiting and Surprises. There's even one tune, Excitement, that (to me at least) evokes drunken staggers through urban landscapes - quite appropriate for the festival, as it turned out. 

And that association with Coltrane's Sound? Simply that Mark Turner's tenor reminds me so much of JC on Kind of Blue. Yes, I realise that's tenuous to say the least, but give this a listen and you'll see what I mean.

Friday, 17 July 2020

Coltrane's Sound: Last Train Jazz Essential Recordings #1

In the spirit of starting as I mean to continue, I'm kicking this off with a controversial choice. It's a great record, but among the many classic cuts by The Man, there are many others that would doubtless rank above this 1960 recording in most critics' choices.

How can my single choice of essential Coltrane album possibly not be Blue Train, or Giant Steps, or A Love Supreme? You see my problem, right?

But there's more to my decision than the impossibility of selecting a lone beacon from this embarrassment of riches. I've chosen Coltrane's Sound simply because, for me, this is where it all began.

Picture the scene: a teenage malcontent on the cusp of permanent eviction from the family home, thanks to an extended and escalating history of 'challenging' conduct; a helpful offer from a well-loved maternal auntie to spend the summer at her place; the chance to put 300 miles between said malcontent and his parents jumped at by all concerned... 

It would be one of my best summers ever. My beatnik, artist auntie ran a very laid back household in a small Northumbrian town. My younger cousins ran pretty much as wild as they pleased. Auntie tolerated and even sponsored my tastes for underage drinking and, ahem, herbal experimentation. 

One blurred afternoon, I discovered her modest collection of old jazz LPs and began flicking through. I had no idea what I was looking at, but was fascinated by the cover art. I recognised a couple of names: Miles Davis (well represented in Auntie's collection) and Herbie Hancock were familiar, if not especially enticing names for this particular callow youth. 

It was the sleeve that caught my eye. I slipped it from the rack, blinking at the impressionistic, melting image. The back wasn't nearly so alluring - those classic, staid liner notes held no interest for me back then - but I found myself setting vinyl to turntable. 

'Congratulations, you've discovered Coltrane.' Auntie had heard the first few bars of Body And Soul (characteristically contrary, I'd put the B-side on) and joined me as I stood, transfixed. She eased the joint from my unfeeling fingers and took a long toke. 

'This one's a nice introduction,' she croaked, almost as if she'd planned for this to happen all along.

And so it began. I'm not going to indulge in any of the well-worn clichés about hearing Coltrane for the first time, other than to say it was a genuinely game-changing moment for me: the day I left behind some decidedly questionable musical tastes and began my lifelong journey through jazz.

So Coltrane's Sound will always hold a special place in my heart, but why should you listen to what is, after all, a relatively minor entry in the great man's canon? 

For starters, Auntie was right. This is a very accessible record - ideal if you find some of Coltrane's later work a bit of a stretch. Three quarters of the legendary quartet is here, but it's early days. In the main, Coltrane plays 'in'. Early stirrings of his phenomenal technique are evident, but he's not found sheets of sound territory yet. If anything, McCoy Tyner sounds the more radical at times here. 

There's a lightness and melodiousness through many of the tracks, like that treatment of Body And Soul, which still sounds joyously subversive compared to all those breathy, down-tempo classic versions. And the ballad-ish Central Park West conjures up sultry city afternoons evocatively. Yet the intensity of later outings is predicted in the brooding Equinox (still one of my all-time favourite tunes) and the embryonic atonality of Coltrane's solos on Liberia and Satellite. 

In short, this may not be one of Coltrane's monuments, but it's a priceless snapshot of his early development as leader, bursting with the potential he was later to realise. 

A treat for the ears - it may not have prevented my inevitable eviction, but it sent me on my way much happier.

Urgent appeal: Save The Vortex

The Vortex in Dalston is one of the UK's brightest and best venues. It's run on a not-for-profit basis and showcases both established acts and talents of lesser renown. 

Please donate what you can to keep this brilliant corner going:

Last Train Jazz Essential Recordings #0

Okay, so here it comes: a series of posts featuring what I consider to be must-have recordings for any discerning jazz fan. It's going to be much like those 100 records to hear before you die lists, except there may end up being more than 100. And they won't all come out in one go. And they won't be ranked in descending or, in fact, any particular order.

Why am I doing this? It's not because I have any delusions that my critical prowess will open the minds of any die-hard Winton Marsalis acolytes to the world beyond that perfectly preserved body of canonically pure classic jazz, whatever that is. As is usual with these lists, even the least-jaded musical palettes will deride the inclusion of this record in preference to that one, and wax incredulous about omitted favourites of their own. Even Jazzy G and I argue the toss at times. 

No, I'm doing this mainly because:

  • I hope I might be able to turn a few open-eared people on to music they've not previously heard (one of the few redeeming qualities of some of the more exploitative streaming platforms out there - you know which ones I'm talking about)
  • my choices might stir up debate and maybe even generate some alternative suggestions I haven't considered, or even heard - my CD racks could do with a little extra bloating, after all
  • it's a good excuse to revisit some of the less-traveled corners of my collection.

And my criteria for induction to this exclusive inventory? You may well ask. As usual, I'm working more with feel than logic, but I'm listing recordings that stand out to me for one or more of these reasons:

  • they're a landmark recording from a particular artist or band
  • in my opinion, they're overlooked classics, or underrated examples of an artist's or band's back catalogue
  • they hold a particular place in my affections for some other reason

In other words, they're my choices and I'll justify their inclusion however I like, got it?

To begin with, at least, I'm limiting my selection to one recording per artist/band. Inevitably that's going to be tricky with some artists. Being a man of very little self-discipline, I'm highly sceptical (away with you, American spell-checker) that I'll be able to keep that up for long without cheating. Let's see how we get on. 

I'm going to tag each post in the series LTJ Essentials, so you can search them, read them, and vent your frustrations by posting vehemently disagreeing comments in the best of jazz-fan traditions. 

Standby for my first selection.

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Lockdown Jazz III

How about this for a mouthwatering line-up? Jazz in the Round is streaming an evening of live sets on 11 May at 8pm, featuring Tim Garland, James Beckwith, Alina Bzhezhinska and Branford Marsalis.

Branford Marsalis is one of my all-time favourite musicians. His performance at North Sea Jazz Festival a few years back was one of the standout gigs of my entire life! And I caught Alina Bzhezhinska at Fleece Jazz last summer. She delivered a truly captivating performance - particularly given that her bass player and saxophonist never made it to the gig! 

Tim Garland I know from his many recordings, but James Beckwith will be a new one for me. I'm told he's a regular on the fizzing (at least before the pandemic) London scene.

You get the link for the performances when you pay for your £5 ticket here. That price sounds a bargain.

La Diversité: Last Train Jazz Essential Recordings #3

Until I stumbled across a secondhand copy of this 2017 release in Ray's , I'd only previously come across Belgian tenor saxophonist ...