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Paul Harrison and All-Star Friends Live at Hospitalfield Jazz 19.4.14

April 20, 2014

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Hindsight is a great thing but those who did not have the foresight to take advantage of a very generous offer from Hospitalfield Jazz will now surely regret the oversight. When I tell you that Paul Harrison‘s eight handed jam brought together top hands in Scottish jazz that would serve only to talk down a one-off event destined to live long in the memories of the happy few (in fact quite a few) who were there.

The much respected Scots jazz broadcaster and promoter Alan Steadman often finds himself central to the Caledonian jazz milieu. Fans and musicians have been gravitating towards his particularly inclusive ideas about programming both on air and at the convivial Jazz Room at Hospitalfield Arts for more than thirty years. Last night the magnet of playing among like-minded jazz people drew some stellar players into a loosely arranged exposition of jazz on-the-fly. Or good old-fashioned jamming that is, of course, the elixir of jazz life.

Normally, a freewheeling session with all its risks and uncertainties can unsettle audience expectations and worry everyone about the attendant costs of over-indulgence. The results can, at times, mean musical indigestion. However the players here are too savvy to abandon structure altogether and, in a democratic selection process, many of the contributors chose a Cole Porter composition as the substrate for their endeavours. This meant that melody was on the menu throughout, and it played well to pianist Paul Harrison’s particular strength as a highly modern interpreter of standards.

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The night was full of flow in the music, and in the movement in and out of personnel. The piano trio featuring Mario Caribé (bass) and Alyn Cosker (drums) began the proceedings with a reassuring lightness. However, the arrival of Tom McNiven on trumpet gave notice that freedom to roam was there to be exploited to the full. His solos sprang from enquiries into dissonance and fresh thinking on phrasing. It also set the tone for a serious playtime on Fats Waller’s Jitterbug Waltz that offered insights into the creative process.

Phil OMalley on trombone underscored the earlier point about melody with a sweet voice on the Pick Yourself Up as four became five on a small stage becoming increasingly crowded with an embarrassment of talent. The mix’n’match approach continued with impact player Kevin Mackenzie on guitar springing from the bench to provide richly rounded chords and mature soloing in a guitar trio permutation. He plays smoothly and melodically in an absorbing style that pulls you rather than shakes you up. Charlie Christian may well have been an influence, but his inventiveness banishes any thoughts of mere emulation.

By this time, things were developing apace and a sense of fun increasingly began to fuel their energies. This emanated in no small part from Mario Caribé on bass who cut a central figure at all times, and not simply because he stood centre stage amid the ensuing melee. He has great physicality coupled with quickness of mind and self-evident experience in strength and depth. Along with Cosker and Harrison he is at the core of a rhythm section worth crossing the fields of Angus to hear. Certainly, he was an appropriate sparring partner for a sweaty duo workout with Konrad Wisniewski on tenor sax.

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The full band was something to behold and their self-assurance, already firmly anchored in expertise, simply grew stronger. It set the scene for some serious blowing from Wisniewski and Ru Pattison, two contrasting players who nevertheless share the default position of pushing themselves hard and stretching the ideas. Pattison’s arrangement of a Cole Porter tune raised even Harrison’s eyebrows.

It was interesting to hear Alyn Cosker play in a setting like this. He is rarely ever anything except all-out, and is known as one of the gutsiest drummers in jazz. Here, in the intimacy of the Jazz Room, his versatility and the quality of his ideas were there to be enjoyed at uncommonly close quarters. The characteristic breakouts came later, and demonstrated why his combination punches of power and accuracy are routinely devastating.

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The laurels of course go to group leader Paul Harrison who seems curiously overlooked even for a jazz musician. His is a seriously influential talent and he has etched new benchmarks in jazz piano with his own music. Yes, there are many great virtuosi in a highly competitive field, but when it comes to the people’s music, personality counts just as much as professionalism.

Harrison guided his all-stars with the light touch of a likeable and dependable coach, and his own playing offered visible reassurance that everyone had made the right choice by agreeing to take part. Once the word is out and the happy smiles in the team photo are widely shared, it wouldn’t surprise me if Harrison’s phone started ringing off the hook with queries about the next game.

Michael S. Clark

Photographs courtesy of The George Duncan Photographic Society

The Way to Blessedness – A Life of Thomas Traherne from Sproatly Smith

April 14, 2014

If I told you that Thomas Traherne, the subject of a new recording by modern folk polemicists Sproatly Smith all but overshadows the music itself, you could, with some justification, accuse me of damning the work with faint praise. If that were so, then we’d have to step outside and settle our differences with sleeves rolled-up and some very hard staring.

Thomas Traherne is a new piece of work from Hereford’s curators of the English character, and they successfully bring this elusive historical personality to three-dimensional life. If this album were a book then Traherne would step out of its pages and sit down to tea with you in your modest country garden.

Thomas Traherne was an (allegedly) obscure metaphysical poet, clergyman, theologian and religious writer who lived through the English Civil War and the subsequent Restoration period. Traherne was relatively unknown as a poet in his lifetime, and most of his work appeared in print two hundred years after his death.328462_358784780812421_1626890032_oDespite repeated “rediscoveries” of his gentle-minded work, much of his poetry remains unpublished. He speaks to us here through the unlikely ether of digital media, yet the Sproatlys remove any sense of incongruity by allowing Traherne’s words to infuse the songs. Traherne’s poems aren’t so much set to music as allowed to wander through it.

This is most evident on Meditations and Walking/Hereford Octaves. The former is a calm eulogy to the overwhelming marvel of experiencing a oneness with the nature and the physical world around you. These pieces explore levels of contemplation we feel we have to fight for, all the while reminiscing about the bygone bucolic charms of faded Olde England. Yet Traherne’s words were all but overwhelmed by the music of war, and it’s perhaps little wonder that he temporarily lost his faith along the way. It’s a conflict of the mind noted by the observant Sproatly Smith in the discordant Apostasy.

 

It’s often been said that little is known about Traherne’s life, but if that’s the case then it hasn’t stopped a steady stream of literary assessment, critical evaluation, academic examination and even celebration.

“In the middle of the 17th Century, there walked the muddy lanes of Herefordshire and the cobbled streets of London, a man who had found the secret of happiness. He lived through a period of bitterest, most brutal warfare and a period of corrupt and disillusioned peace. He saw the war and the peace at close quarters. He suffered as only the sensitive can. He did not win his felicity easily. Like the merchantman seeking goodly pearls or the seeker for hidden treasure in a field, he paid the full price. But he achieved his pearl, his treasure. He became one of the most radiantly, most infectiously happy mortals this earth has known.”, so spoke biographer Gladys Wade of her subject Thomas Traherne.

Moreover, Traherne’s poetry had been set to song long before this exposition by Sproatly Smith. In 1939, the noted clarinetist and pastoral torchbearer Gerald Finzi (below) composed a cantata for solo voice and string orchestra entitled Dies natalis (Op. 8) of which four movements are settings of writings by Thomas Traherne. The work was not performed until 1946 in a karmic twist of fate that saw war and brutality once more suffocate beauty and art.gerald-finzi-1332236606-hero-wide-0Thomas Traherne – the album – could easily be interpreted as an (already) archetypal 21st Century aural biopic, full of ambience, atmosphere and subliminal suggestion. Hell, there are even some really nice songs in there. I prefer to meet it as an introduction to a thinker and a poet with the kind of reasonable and gentle voice that is all too often drowned out by the barking dogs of cynicism and expedient argument.

Traherne is fascinating because we can have a sense of him through his words and concur with his longing for sensible peace. Sproatly Smith offer a sound garden in which to conjure up our own vision of him. In so doing they paint, for me at least, a vivid portrait of a soul who perceived God in Nature, and the essence of Nature in his vision of God.

I am fond of Sproatly Smith, and it’s developing into something more than a mere soft spot. Their suggestions are often oblique and their folk-framed music is frequently filtered through an obfuscating electronic gauze. Nevertheless, they always have something apposite to say about the English condition with music that lulls you unwittingly into unspoken agreement.

Michael S. Clark

 

Brace Yourselves! It’s ‘The Ballads of Peckham Rye” by Blue Rose Code

April 10, 2014

0002653877_10A year can be a long time in music, especially when you are waiting to hear the follow-up to your favourite album of 2013. I didn’t have to wait as long as twelve months and a day, having been given a copy well in advance. It’s been a rare privilege to absorb some fine new songs from Ross Wilson and his Blue Rose Code amalgam, and have so much time to assimilate a response. As music fans, we often quite unfairly look for more, but that only plays into Wilson’s hands. He wants to give more, and that means a further sprinkling of his gold dust for us.

If I could only use one word to describe The Ballads of Peckham Rye, then it would be Arthur Lee’s chewily conjoined andmoreagain. Musically, this second album doesn’t so much pick up where North Ten left off as pause momentarily to pick over old ground. Wilson then spits into the wind to see which way it may productively carry him, and it takes him in wonderfully interesting directions.

The album features several songs that have been previewed in performance, so fans will be familiar with some of them already. However, this recording of Edina places a powerfully descriptive love poem to his forsaken home city among some of the finest recollections of a time, a place and a personal history. Songs like MacColl’s Dirty Old Town may be evocative, but the beautifully constructed Edina puts you inside a memory and in Wilson’s shoes. It’s this unflinching selflessness in his writing that sets him apart from many of his contemporaries and elevates his songs.

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However, his generosity isn’t entirely borne of mere fellowship. There are songs of shame and guilt such as One Day at a Time and The Right to be Happy that speak to Wilson’s battle with the bottle and its concomitant strains upon relationships. But it’s the burden of past crimes and misdemeanours that seem to bother him most. On the title track in particular he is keen to lighten the load by confessing his blues to strangers on a country road that leads anywhere but here.

If celebratory bursts of song such as the exuberant Oh North and the nocturnal Step Eleven are the outcome of his catharsis then the rewards promise to be very rich indeed. I’d like to come back to this web magazine’s twin infatuations, the art of song and the spirit of radio. On Oh North, the singing is joyful, communal and affirmative with an accompaniment that is spare, percussive and highly inclusive. You can all join in; you in the audience and everyone at home. These are the sorts of musical messages that need to be thrown in the air like a confetti of white doves far more often if we are to spread positivity through music.

Wilson is a very modern soul singer with the voice of the travelled Scot that is enormously comfortable in a roots setting featuring fireside instruments. Many of his songs are guitar-led, but there is a strong sense that he’s putting his voice out front now. He sings like a pied piper with banjos, fiddles, trumpets and pedal steel following blithely in his wake. At his side throughout however, is his BRC vocal shadow Samantha Whates who is less backing singer than a gentle touch on the shoulder of troubled soul.

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Nevertheless, his inclination to wander freely in music, art and poetry for inspiration and enlightenment has served Wilson well on The Ballads of Peckham Rye. Its very title is derived from a novel by Muriel Spark, a story about a disruptive personality, not dissimilar to the protagonist of Hogg’s more famous Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Consider also his thoughtful setting of a Norman McCaig poem, True Ways of Knowing, and you have a portrait of the artist as a young man coming to terms with dislocation, alienation and disaffection. It’s picture he cannily paints with beautiful singing and truly subliminal songs. Listen in the dark to his re-thinking of Now Westlin’ Winds and you will find yourself drawn deeper into his world.

Wilson has been down so low in his time that the only way out has been up: either that or the other thing. Blue Rose Code, a vehicle with some stellar guests on board such as Karine Polwart, Aidan O’Rourke, Danny Thompson, Kathryn Williams, Dave Milligan, Rachel Newton and John Wetton, shows signs of travelling towards a future so bright that Ray-Bans may be required. Me? I’m just here for the songs, keenly awaiting yetmoreagain.

Michael S. Clark

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On A Night Like This. Revisiting Coltrane with Courtney Pine and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra (SNJO) live at the RCS 30.3.14

March 31, 2014

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Courtney Pine and Tommy Smith by Derek Clark Photography

Last night, John Coltrane was abroad in Glasgow. He swooped down low over the People’s Palace, crept through Kelvingrove Park, walked up Renfrew Street and ghosted into The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. He sat quietly, only a few rows away from me, as Courtney Pine and The SNJO led by Tommy Smith honoured him in the most appropriate way possible. They lit a phosphorescent torch and burned up all the oxygen in the room with a bright blue flame and an irresistible white heat.

In a series of astounding performances the SNJO have ripped into 2014 like men who have work to do and no time to be hanging around. The Revisiting Coltrane programme typified their sleeves up approach with a blistering opening salvo from special guest Courtney Pine on tenor sax. The band roared him on from behind and they set the scene with Trane’s Impressions for a take-no-prisoners brand of friendly fire. Pine seems to start out from the point where many lesser players are ready to leave the stage. He pushes himself to the point of exhaustion and sets a challenging example for others to follow.

On the bustling modernity of Satellite there was, however, only joy to behold in a twinkling sax section who created a field of diamonds across Coltrane’s starry night sky. Pine’s soprano, is of course, stellar but it’s a bit like an aural illustration of the big bang theory. The notes poured out of him like particles streaming through space while the music itself bent time.

Pine was in the company of a hot band and the mercury was spilt on the floor long before peak temperature was ever reached. Their treatment of two sections of A Love Supreme; Acknowledgement and Resolution represented a power surge all of their own. Pine was firm footed throughout, but SNJO soloists Konrad Wiszniewski (tenor), Paul Towndrow (alto) and Tom Walsh (trumpet) were on tip-toes as they elevated each phrase (and themselves) beyond reasonable expectations. Walsh’s solo in particular authentically captured the medium cool flavour of a recent past that has been too often been diluted to the level of period drama.

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Above: The SNJO in rehearsal with Courtney Pine and founder/director Tommy Smith ↑ All Photographs by Heather McIntosh, courtesy of The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra

However, this was no dressing up game. The feathery exoticism of Afro Blue was seductively bright, but Pine really meant business with every note. He conjured an imagined bestiary full of animal magic, vibrant colours and strange sounds from the forest. The contrasts came thick and fast as the built environment loomed large with Giant Steps. It’s the skyscraping sound of tomorrow’s world today, and it featured a shimmering trio section that showcased pianist Steve Hamilton. His soloing glinted and glimmered like a water fountain reflected in plate glass windows, and he sounded almost like a vibist in tone, control, punctuation and speed.

Coltrane’s music can be innately sensual and Moment’s Notice began with an innocuous caress that built into an impatient, frantic knee-trembler. It found Pine squealing orgasmically and trumpeter Tom McNiven spitting out notes in a hot flush. Martin Kershaw took his alto solo with the air of an imperturbable man of the world and emerged a little over-heated, but relatively unscathed.

There is little respite for those who did not come to dance. Naima, one of Coltrane’s prettiest tunes, cooled the heels a little, but it still contained waves of impassioned intensity. The arrangement plays into the welcoming arms of a repertoire orchestra that specializes in the sound of love. On Dear Lord, they set sail across a sublime ocean of reassurance, faith, hope and redemption to find Courtney Pine wonderfully buoyant and drifting effortlessly towards revelation.

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Courtney Pine by Derek Clark Photography

The performance climaxed emphatically with The Father, and the Son and the Holy Ghost in a hymn informed by the uncertainties of modernity. It built quickly, and inexorably, to improbable heights of unbridled expression. It was a wild night in the conservatoire with Smith and Pine duetting mercilessly out front with a runaway rhythm section driving them on. Now we get it; the transcendental, the abstract, and the sheer sheets of pure sound. And more, always more, as Smith laid down his sax to conduct the horns in stabs, swells and God only knows what else. The drumming from Alyn Cosker, who had been a pivotal figure all night, is as accurate and synergetic as it is ferocious. How does it all end? It ends with all passion spent, Pine’s clenched fist punching the air, and a triumphant smile from Tommy Smith.

After everyone had gone, I had a brief conversation with Coltrane in the deserted foyer at the end of time. I asked him if he’d ever read any Dylan Thomas, but he just looked at me quizzically, as if I was talking to a dead guy. We may never know if he was familiar with the Welsh poet, or his famous quote, “These poems..are written for the Love of Man and in Praise of God, and I’d be a damn’ fool if they weren’t.” Still, on a night like this, you can’t escape the feeling that Coltrane offered up his music in the same spirit, much as it is gifted to us today by artists like Courtney Pine, Tommy Smith and The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra.

Michael S. Clark

For more about the the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra please visit www.snjo.co.uk

Live shots used by kind permission of Derek Clark Photography www.derekclarkphotography.com

 

 

Salt House – Lay Your Dark Low

March 12, 2014

SalthouseWhenever I come across an Scottish roots ensemble like Salt House, packed like sardines with inter-leaving multidisciplinary talents and a diversity of outside interests, I have to wonder if this is a band in the strict sense of the word. There was a time when the music press, much less record labels, wouldn’t tolerate a multiplicity of memberships. Lay Your Dark Low is the debut album of a very fine group that looks like a band and sounds very much like a band. In fact they sound like they’ve been together for years.

Let’s look at Strong Dark Souls for a start. It is simply a great  opener, delivered from the first note with great authority by Siobhan Miller. Her voice has a firm, distinctive, individual character, full of clarity and directness; but it also contains a caressing lilt that softens around a melody to good effect. The song has an eminently inclusive melody with a strong dynamic and a real chorus…..for a change.


STRONG DARK SOULS by Salt House ↑

It comes from the pen of songwriter and guitarist Ewan McPherson, a reflective soul whose songs are often slightly bleak and oblique. This is probably a false reading for I am sure he is imperturbably cheery, and really good at telling jokes. On this recording, he also contributes Freshwater Salt, The Seer and The Lord, and chips in with words and music on She Walks in Beauty. These songs are rather downward looking in spirit, but not without the hope that springs eternal from the creative urge. On Freshwater Salt he seems worried about the dilution of his art, “Music on my left hand, money on my right, I’m in a battlefield in the morning light”. Yet the melodies are somehow optimistic, as if to suggest that it’s music itself that provides the escape.iosThere are arrangements of the traditional on this album that are so delightfully modern that it seems rude to mention the F-word. I suppose it is f..k, but Little Birdie seems like so much more. It’s utterly charming, held aloft with a skylark flutter and a percussive banjo beating away like a pair of wee wings. There is also an interesting Richard Thompson-flavoured guitar break (yes, him again), that perhaps signals absorption of the mutated form.

She’s Like The Swallow continues the avian theme with an absorbing great piece of storytelling and dramatic art. It’s a tale of insincerity, a fickle heart and the grim consequences of betrayal. It’s all marvellous sport, as long as it’s happening to someone else two hundred years ago.

Salt House deal in ensemble playing that is right out of the top drawer, and more consistent with a group that has been together for some time. On bassist Euan Burton‘s fluid ballad Open Water and the rhythmic Setting Sun they reveal songwriting strength in depth. On the latter, the bass line follows the melody and the guitar interplay is astute. But Burton’s songs are strong, a real pleasure to listen to, and perfect fit for the Miller’s measured range and tone.SalthouseKatie Cruel is reminiscent of  a favourite song of mine called I Live Not Where I Love, although I refer mainly to the sentiment echoed with biting bitterness in this Scots account of personal displacement. Lauren MacColl‘s fiddle talents are employed largely for shading and accompaniment, but her deft solos are dedicated to service of the melody and far less demonstrative than is usually associated with the traditional form. MacColl’s fiddle is nevertheless prominent on David Francey‘s quasi-philosophical Morning Train, a song built to a Pentangle design that shoogles along theosophical lines to the-waiting-room-in-the-station-at-the-end-of-time.


OPEN WATER by Salt House

The Seer and The Lord is Ewan McPherson’s wordily witty riff on a time-honoured theme of twisted fates. It takes a skilful singer to navigate a labyrinthine lyric such as this, and Miller emerges creditably unscathed. However, She Walks in Beauty is the sort of modern hybrid that may speak of our time more clearly than anything else. It uses voices and ideas from the past, and articulates them through a very contemporary approach to song that values coherence and artistry. It’s a dark scenario shrouded in mysticism and features an excellent vocal arrangement that, to be honest, I half-expected to hear earlier in the set.

There’s more good news emanating from this CD. Folk-Rock is officially dead! That means bands like Salt House can concentrate on words and music rather than manners and mores. The results are genuinely new music that won’t succumb so readily to changes in fashion. We will still hear Open Water in 20 years time, but it will be we who have aged, not the song.

Michael S. Clark

Return Ticket – The Girl with the Dragonfly Tattoo

March 12, 2014

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It’s company policy here at INSTRUMENTAL to kick over the ashes of the burned out year in case something got missed. Songs of Love and Murder , Dragonfly Tattoo‘s EP of micro-dramas was released in January last year, and contains smouldering songs of , well…”love and murder”. They flutter from the debris of 2013 like flakes of burnt confetti, but on closer inspection it’s clear that they are more than mere fragments.

Vocalist, pianist and principal songwriter Vicky Whelan contributes five numbers including Hollow Men, an outstanding song in a really compelling arrangement. The the richness of the cello, so often merely decorous is deeply involved in the song’s narrative structure and follows the melody at a discreet distance. This sort of sophisticated popular song has been the preserve of Tori Amos, Suzanne Vega and Kate Bush,  but here it is coupled with the melodic good sense of say, Colin Blunstone or the underrated ingenuity of Lynsey de Paul. Hollow Men also has a great sense of its own space; the delicate piano notes may wander freely, but they respect the unspoken boundaries of the song.

408101_438864176202197_1661307977_n Lilith, with its ethereal vocal, is quite a different sound. It’s an electronic attic-mad blues with some nicely acidic guitar from producer Nigel Stonier creeping around in the rafters. Slow and menacing, a slightly opiated tempo like this can sometimes drag, and it depends on the vocal to maintain interest. Even though there is an effect added to Whelan’s voice, it’s still the skill of the singer that holds the attention.

It comes as no great surprise to hear some icy cello on Winterface but Semay Wu plays with sufficient awareness of cliche to paint a picture and not simply sketch a caricature.  The imagery is very strong with a frosty vocal on a tune that is deceptively simple, but delivered with originality, skill and a sense of drama.

By the time you get to When Love Feels Like Murder, you realize that this is a modern blues, as Whelan dances adroitly around Alan Lowles’ nimble bass and drummer Paul Burgess’ sure-footedness. There is much original thinking in a bright, articulate arrangement and Whelan’s glassy, classy delivery owes little to any sort of infatuation with bygone legends.

Two Wrongs comes across like Tom Waits-lite, which is fine for those of us who find a tanked-up Thomas a little heavy going at times. Again, this is blues with intellect and wit from a pianist whose phrasing neatly mirrors her ideas about delivering a song. Some of it is vaguely reminiscent of late-period Norah Jones, who seemed to suddenly apply tear-streaked kohl to her otherwise innocuous songs. Whelan seems more naturally connected to the core of disaffection. The result is observational semi-detachment, rather than overwrought catharsis, but the sentiments are genuine.

Dragonfly Tattoo aim to release a live EP of new material and INSTRUMENTAL has had a sneak preview. It appears to have a more ambitious musical vision and sounds like a group of like minds coalescing into a proper band. The overall sound is more muscular with some meaty bass and shreds of splintered guitar. At times, Whelan’s vocal is slightly subsumed by her psyched-up band although the assertiveness of the guitar is offered some balance by the cello.


HOLLOW MEN by Dragonfly Tattoo ↑

In performance, Whelan’s essentially sweet voice flirts with freakpower mannerisms, as if Steve Nicks had been led astray by Grace Slick or Patti Smith. It’s lots of fun, especially on the trippy Spider’s Song, whose dark heartbeat morphs into black tango. It wouldn’t be out of place on a Tim Burton soundtrack, or maybe he could play it to Helena every year on her birthday? The provisional title track, Closer to the Sun is set in an atmospherically lush arrangement with some searching piano and a strong vocal that holds its ground during a big finish. The gospel informed Before You Leave the Road is a tender touch with a nicely unexpected unison refrain, although the lead vocal is slightly swamped later in the mix. Nevertheless, the singer’s range is used effectively and there is a welcome first glimpse of the soul sister tendency in Whelan’s voice.

Michael S Clark

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Tattoo You

March 12, 2014

Actual Things To Say – Observations from Kansas City

March 10, 2014

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James P. McNamara is based in Kansas City (Mo.) and writes for Demencha, an online magazine. Today, INSTRUMENTAL is proud to publish the first of an informal series of observational posts from his home city. James has a singular voice and a clear-eyed view of pavement-level modern America. He writes with the wry cynicism of a latter-day Damon Runyon that is tempered by the empathy of a streetwise Garrison Keillor. Kansas City is a music town with a big history, so James’ pieces come with a soundtrack. But don’t expect Charlie Parker or Big Joe Turner. 18th and Vine looks a little different these days.

I was trying to find something. An idea or song or introduction that would both tell you about me and this city. To be honest, this effort has been a total failure. I am terrible at introductions that don’t involve handshakes. So, lets just get this out of the way. Hello, I am James McNamara, Jim to family and James P. to readers. The Curator asked me to write about my hometown once a month for you here at Instrumental; our music, our culture, and our problems. Kansas City can be hard place to summate. We spread wide for the better part of four decades, urban sprawl has effectively created a city full of micro-cultures that are all at once the same, but entirely separate in the way they view the city.

But if there is one gesture that can be used to illustrate the Kansas City mindset, it would probably be the quarter-for-a-cigarette interaction. Twenty-five cents American is the going rate for a loosey in KC. I don’t know when it last was adjusted for inflation or taxes, but its that has been the price for most of my adult. After all, cigarettes do cost money, and money is earned in time you’ll never get back, so it’s only fair to offer recompense.

You are out of cigarettes and today isn’t the day you are going to quit. You either don’t have the time or the money to get yourself a pack. You see someone waiting to cross the street, smoking what can only be the most, satisfying cigarette ever smoked. You approach, careful not to appear too purposeful, this is a delicate matter and you don’t want to seem intimidating.

“Hey, get a smoke off ya?”

You are met with blank stare.

“I got a quarter?”

“Sure.”

They hand you the cigarette. You try to hand them the quarter, knowing full well that in they probably won’t take it. They shake their head, tell you it isn’t necessary.

“You sure?”

“Yeah.”

This could actually turn into a longer conversation: a back and forth politeness haggle in which no one has any intention of giving or receiving any money. The exchange is one that speaks to the core of the Kansas Citian: the trivialities of a custom often do. We don’t want the money, we want you to show that you see value in us and our endeavors. Just as it’s common to give a silent head nod to a passing stranger after a flicker of eye contact, it is also customary to respect people fiscally when asking for even the smallest favor. This is a dirty, harsh little city. It’s violent and stretched too thin. Money isn’t easy to get and it’s even harder to keep. So, a loosie has a price tag, even if that price tag is just drawn “thank you” with some facetious ass kissing involved. It doesn’t matter that the payment is most likely going to be rejected, what matter is that you understand that cigarette represents someone’s time, someone’s effort.Surgeon_General's_warning_cigarettesI don’t think this is what you wanted from me, if you wanted anything at all. I’m not a historian of my city, I am not involved in the hippest crowds. I am just some guy who lives here. I may not be able to tell you where Charlie Parker played his first gig or what Hemingway was wearing when he went to work at the Kansas City Star, but I can tell you about the people who live here now. And, I suppose, I can share some of our art with you. Yeah, at least that.

So, I will leave you with this piece of music. (The hope is that if you listen to this song, it will reflect better on me, thus making you want to read my writing the next time. Fingers Crossed!) This is a song by a local rapper, Kutty Slitz. He is quickly becoming a local favorite among fans and artists. He has this innate ability to convey intelligence and remain unpredictable. He just personifies the Kansas City attitude better than most: wild, strange, maybe even a little madcap, but cross the invisible lines of common decorum at your own risk. Got a smoke?

James P. McNamara

Read more James P McNamara in his column Out Here In Car Country which appears regularly at DEMENCHA.COM

Ain’t Never Been to Kansas City…They Tell Me It’s Nice

March 10, 2014

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“I’m going to Kansas City
Kansas City, here I come
They got some crazy little women there
And I’m gonna get me one.”

Leiber and Stoller

Travelling Man – Sean Taylor Stops By Kinross 27.2.14

March 1, 2014

holland 2012Its been my great pleasure to write about artists like Sean Taylor and its always nice to catch them in performance, with the added bonus of a post-show conversation. The pleasure is so much greater when the artist is as cordial, articulate and interesting as Taylor.

Sean is a singer and songwriter with a strong musical affinity for authentic blues and down-home Americana, yet he is as English as the day is long, and a proud Londoner to boot. I found him at Backstage, an unlikely venue improbably bolted onto The Green Hotel in the comfy Perthshire county town of Kinross. Its located within lager tin throwing distance of the T in the Park site, but Taylor is probably happier in this intimate setting.

He opens with Heaven from his highly regarded Love Against Hate album, and makes a tender song shuffle sweetly along the twin tracks of love and loss. London, taken from the new record is pinned down by neat wee riff. In performance, this empathetic poem is presented in an even more affectionate reading that is looser and more reflective. Taylors touch on guitar is nice n light, but demonstrates a firm rhythmic pulse that is the lifeblood of great acoustic blues.

Indeed, there is a constant re-affirmation of his blues credentials throughout the set, especially on Sixteen Tons with a meathook vocal and agile guitar, and Skip James Hard Time Killing Floor Blues. But these are not mere plodding tributes. Taylor is a modern man and a rhythm king who moves with the speed of the times. On Shes Gone in particular, he encapsulates his idiosyncratic finger style and the beatbox in his body in an absorbing little showcase of style, musicianship and stagecraft.

There are other sides to Taylor though, and he is as open, candid and contemporary about them as he is about re-shaping blues stylings. In a new song called Rothko - inspired by the work of the modernist painter – he sings, Every night beauty takes off her dress and his poetry, it must be said, is streaked with a worldly romanticism.

Playing without a break, Taylor puts in a muscular shift, frantically burning up on So Fine and dissolving into open-tuned tenderness on his popular love song Perfect Candlelight. A bluesified version of boogie-tastic Chase the Night lets the vocal do most of the work replacing the fuel-injected energy of the original recording.  However, the tune then leaps impressively into Jumpin Jack Flash with a single bound and a really superb vocal.

In between, he talks easily about being artist one day at a time, going from place to place: from playing in front of 2000 patient John Fogerty fans to the cultural no-mans land of the Essex marshlands. Hes a purveyor of bone-dry banter as he drolly explains, Theres Not much nature where I come from. Weve got three trees in London. There used to be four, but now there’s only three. Boris Johnson ate one.”

This is Taylor all over. The quiet one you have to watch. He sings Stand Up as an invitation to a wave of protest with his trademark whisper to insurrection. His version of Youll Never Walk Alone is almost perversely deconstructed and made into another song altogether. But it does say Let your free flag fly” in the exactly the same spirit of camaraderie. There is a muted drama in his arrangements, as if he imagines banners coming into view on the long march to elusive freedom. Walk on with hope in your heart if you can and, in an increasingly oppressive world, if you dare.

He finishes with Richie Havens Freedom as if to underscore the contention that this is the truth; it can and will endure. Whether we overcome or not is of course, perennially a matter for future generations.

After the show, I spoke at length with him about music and making a living at a very tough game. He is a tremendously hard-working individual, but he is also organised and in control of his own life and work. He spoke of the need to do 100 gigs a year, which is why you will be able to see him just about anywhere in the UK this year. The winter months are for recording, and in between well no doubt see him do a host of radio sessions and interviews.


Sean Taylor’s LONDON ↑

I also asked him about his collaborations with revered bassist Danny Thompson and, if possible, tell me what hed gotten musically from working with the peoples favourite bass player. His reply came without a moments hesitation, To play without fear. Some people might suggest that encouragement springs from Thompsons background in jazz. However, its just as likely to be London thing.

Michael S. Clark.

Sean Taylor is currently on tour. For all his 2014 dates please see his website (link below).

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Hard Time’s Is Here…

March 1, 2014

Skipjames

The only known photograph of Skip James in his youth

Over There – The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra report back on their American Adventure

February 24, 2014

SNJO American Adventure Tommy Smith websize cropScotland’s jazz chest is currently overflowing with all sorts of priceless treasures, but the jewel in its crown is indisputably The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra (SNJO) under founder/director Tommy Smith. On American Adventure, a transatlantic love story comes full circle as the brightest stars of the Scottish scene meet some of the biggest names in American jazz. The result is an astonishing affirmation of the sheer power of professional musicianship to move mountains, shift obstacles and make great things happen.

The album was recorded over two days at Avatar Studios in New York and features special guests MIKE STERN, KURT ELLING, BILL EVANS, DAVID LIEBMAN, RANDY BRECKER, JOE LOCKE, CLARENCE PENN, DONNY McCASLIN, ALYN COSKER, DAVID KIKOSKI, JOEL FRAHM and MICHAEL DEASE, all of whom bring distinctive voices that rise upon the swelling thermals created by the SNJO.

It is a relatively simple matter to single out those who made the strongest contributions. It was all of them. This record is special because it marks a moment in time when native musicians steeped in the primary American art form met some of the most expressive voices in contemporary jazz coming out of Europe. If that sounds like hype, then stand back and let this truck through. It’s full of the four and five star reviews already pouring in from the great and the good in jazz criticism.downloadI could repeat what everyone else is saying about the flammable material created by guitarist Mike Stern and drummer Alyn Cosker on an incendiary version of Splatch. I prefer to quote a friend of mine who observed that Cosker, such is his self-assurance, is “like an explosives expert sitting on a box of dynamite..casually puffing on a cigarette.” Some people know what they can do.

Similarly, I might point you towards Joe Locke’s dazzling vibes on Yes or No. If music were a precious metal then it would be sure to have added value were it encrusted with Locke’s sparkling diamond-bright notes. Indeed, it is Locke himself who states that “the orchestra almost melted the sound tiles in the studio as they burned through a hyper-modern performance of Richie Bierach’s Pendulum.” Nevertheless, it’s true. Cosker and soprano saxophone master David Liebman really are a fire hazard as they, along with Donny McCaslin, blitz through a piece of music that makes you wonder – “How could they stand the heat?”590x372.fitandcropIt doesn’t seem fair that I should add my voice to the accolades when so much has already been said about Randy Brecker’s hard-boiled, soft-centred phrasings on Geoffery Keezer’s arrangement of Dear Lord. David Kikoski, who also appears on the Tommy Smith arranged Quartet No. 1 (Part 2) by Chick Corea, is a tremendous presence and a passionate player. I have heard the question asked about him, “How can someone who plays like that not be a household name?” I suppose the answer is, “It depends whose house you’re in.”

On Quartet No 1 Part 2 Bill Evans drops by to offer his muscular assistance on a sweat-soaked saxophone workout that is driven along by the brassy mettle of the SNJO. If you subjected yourself to music like this in your basement gym then you’d be ripped in a matter of weeks.

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By the time you get to newcomer Jacob Mann’s arrangement of Wayne Shorter’s Pinocchio you start to understand that the jazz house is all about windows into a shared past and an open-door policy for the next generation, and the one after that. Michael Dease, Joel Frahm and Clarence Penn who guest on this number walked right in, sat right down and let the music (and the good times) roll.

If you’re getting the idea that this review is less about the playing and more about the listening then you are dead right. As fully paid-up fans of the blue note brigade it’s the (quality) music buying public’s privilege to wax eloquent, spout effusively and generally hyper-ventilate about hot jazz music that excites and inflames the senses.

But you know that something’s really going on when vocal star Kurt Elling joins the SNJO to perform the Mingus tribute Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love. Sublime notes morph into words that mutate into a sense of the self in a devastating arrangement by Tommy Smith.SNJO American Adventure Kurt Elling websizeI’m sorry if I say too much but it’s how it makes me feel. It doesn’t matter if you are in a dark room with your thoughts or on a crowded avenue, One is the loneliest number and nothing concentrates the mind more than that fact. Elling and Smith, whose only playing contribution on the album is sixteen soulful bars of saxophone on this track, enjoy the full support of the orchestra in their articulation of things that keep the rest of us tongue-tied.

In many ways, American Adventure is the sound of love. It declares its devotion to jazz, a powerful means of expression that has travelled the globe, yet has somehow always manages to gravitate inevitably back towards the land of its birth. East Kilbride looks nothing like Kansas and Newton Mearns will never be confused with New York. But we do have soul…lots of soul and now, as Randy Brecker points out, we have in the SNJO “deep swing” to go with it.

Michael S. Clark

February 2014

American Adventure is out now on Spartacus records

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Three Deuces

February 24, 2014

1950nyc

The Ideas Men – An Evening with Kurt Elling and The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, Perth Concert Hall 21.1.14

February 24, 2014

ANNA WEBBER STUDIO ©2012You know, bookish, thoughtful people are not at all introverted and unapproachable. Just get into a conversation with a librarian about their favourite stories from childhood and you will see what I mean. In a series of weekend concerts, the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra (SNJO) and guest vocalist Kurt Elling engaged in a literary discourse over Syntopicon: An Index to The Great books of Western Literature. No one got lost, no one was even slightly disorientated and everyone had a great time listening to stories of the human condition filtered through amazing jazz and wonderful words.

Billed as Syntopicon: An Evening with Kurt Elling, the programme conceived by SNJO founder/director Tommy Smith saw the orchestra further pursue the path of eclecticism. This is the big band that dares to be different, and it’s now turning heads in Europe and in the USA for its derring-do as much as its imperturbable professionalism.

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Syntopicon could hardly have been more eclectic with the inclusion of high-octane modern jazz in the shape of Wayne Shorter’s Go, the caress of a Broadway melody on Somewhere (There’s a Place For Us), the uncertainty of Paul Simon’s American Tune and the story of a broken-hearted boy on a Scottish loch. What could possibly bind all these highly diverse thought-streams together into one vision? Well, the answer should be simple enough; music and song.

Of course, the SNJO’s ideas about music and Kurt Elling’s art with song are bound to stretch the form and test the waters that others find uninviting. Yet, these are the routes to discovery and the rewards can be extremely rich and uplifting. Take for example, The Great Books of Western Literature upon which the programme is based. As Elling so eruditely explained, the Syntopicon lists and cross-references what great authors thought about Joy, Beauty, Love, Wisdom, Knowledge, Evil and Death. These are the concepts we almost unthinkingly apply to the human experience and the human condition. When you put it this way it seems surprising that a programme of modern music such as this hasn’t (to my knowledge) been curated in this way before.1782082_10152169643101505_1309046159_nGreen Chimneys captured all the joy of the careless playground in Elling’s scatological re-telling of Monk’s musings at the school gates. The tune is named for the school that the composer’s daughter attended and Elling delighted in some agile vocal hopscotch. Language was used on the Elling/Mendoza composition Esperanto and gave us a first glimpse of the singer’s powerful command of words and a stratospheric vocal that soared skywards. Here, and in other telling moments, Elling’s voice seemed to become a disembodied force of nature pushing out into the auditorium and filling the space above our heads.

The Mingus tribute to a great bandleader Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love appears on the new SNJO CD American Adventure with Elling not so much guesting as collaborating. In performance we get to witness sublime control, superlative phrasing and sophisticated interpretation of a painstaking arrangement by Smith that expands like a small universe. It was an early high point in an evening of peaks, and yet more peaks. Steve Hamilton’s elegantly touching piano introduction to Geoffrey Keezer’s arrangement of Somewhere from West Side Story signalled the falling away of cares. One could only sigh as one of the finest melodies in American music was swept off its feet by an orchestra in its confident, optimistic prime.1614460_809065445774831_912286972_oThen there was Elling in full-flow vocalese following the filaments of a Dexter Gordon solo; a call and response exchange with Tommy Smith on sax; and an absorbing recitation of The City Dark, Robert Pinsky’s genial and genealogical observation of the exponential nature of all human life. I could listen to Kurt Elling sing all night, but if he simply wanted to talk that would be alright with me too. He has a tutored speaking voice, but he also possesses the intuitive audience skills of the gifted pastor. He connects with people through his humaneness, not at all unlike Garrison Keillor, and this is probably one of his finest innate gifts.

If you think, I indulge in starry talk that is just a “wheen o’ blethers”, then you were either asleep through his tender treatment of the Tay Boat Song, or worse still, you were not there. Elling climbed into the soul of a confused and befuddled young man, perplexed by losing in love and heartbroken at the loss. It’s an evocative Scottish song, set in an iconic Scottish place but it was sung by a nuanced, educated American voice that gave it universal meaning. Tommy Smith added his thoughts on saxophone and he too navigated the tricky channels between art, culture, identity, emotion and understanding. Elling and Smith are clearly good friends, and that would probably be the case whether both men were plumbers or accountants. As it is, music is the common cause and words are their bond. Syntopicon is what they did together with one of the finest repertory orchestras anywhere, and it was truly memorable.

Michael S. Clark

February 2014

All Photos of Kurt Elling by Anna Webber; The Syntopicon and Tommy Smith with Kurt Elling photographs are courtesy of Tommy Smith

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Above The Clouds

February 24, 2014

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From “The Cloud”

I bring fresh showers for the thirsting flowers,

From the seas and the streams;

I bear light shade for the leaves when laid

In their noonday dreams.

From my wings are shaken the dews that waken

The sweet buds every one,

When rocked to rest on their mother’s breast,

As she dances about the sun.

I wield the flail of the lashing hail,

And whiten the green plains under,

And then again I dissolve it in rain,

And laugh as I pass in thunder.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

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