Monday, December 30, 2013

New York City Jazz Record, January 2014

Written by Ken Waxman

I'll be in New York for Jazz Connect from 9 January. Let me know if you want to meet.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Stan Tracey and improvisation

Stan Tracey's relationship with the Vortex was very close. David Mossman believes that he was the first person to call Stan "The Godfather of British Jazz", a name which has stuck throughout the recent tributes to him. David said that, if ever he introduced Stan in this way, he could see the great man wince! I also think that he was probably the first musician to play at the original Vortex, and thus it is due to Stan that the Vortex is no longer just a bookshop and gallery as it was when it first opened on Stoke Newington Church Street.

Hearing and seeing Stan Tracey over recent years at the Vortex impressed on me for several reasons. First, the mental and physical spriteliness that playing music gives. As soon as he got up on the stage and started playing the years seemed to fall away.  Somehow, he seemed at least 20 years younger. One of the special things about music. One of his regular dates, just a few days after the death of Jackie, was particularly moving as this lady was not just his wife but also the drummer's mother. That also showed his mental strength, to me.

I also listen back with regularity to some of his fully improvised albums. Those with Evan Parker and Stan, but also the duo with Clark. Stan was from a generation which clearly could not separate between composition and free improvisation. And on the gigs with Evan and Clark, he gave as good as he got. The first time the three played together, I shall always remember the thrill of Clark to be playing with two masters.

The empathy with Evan clearly extended to the awareness of language and history. One of their duo tracks is called "Skeffington's Daughter". It describes a torture instrument from Tudor times which was the opposite of the rack. (Having checked this before, it helped me when I came across this in Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall.)

He seemed to take all the challenges for granted. The idea of arranging for and leading a big band, and then soloing too, at the Royal Albert Hall for a BBC Prom to 5,000 would be daunting to anyone. But when Stan did it, he was over 80!

He achieved a lot over the years and he has received, understandably, the adulation in obituaries and tributes justified for being "a national monument", as Alex Dutilh of France Musique has called him. (Thanks to Sebastian Scotney for that.) But actually his regular gigs were at places like the Vortex and Bull's Head to the end. Did he really do enough of the high profile gigs as someone of that description deserves towards the last days of his life?

Here are a couple of photos that I took of Stan in January 2011. The first with Evan and the second with himself (courtesy of the glass reflection from one of the painting behind him).

Friday, December 13, 2013

A Q and A With Pianist Liam Noble: On the Sofa Series #2

The second Q and A for the Sofa Series brings  pianist Liam Noble into focus

katan500: Favourite colour?
Liam Noble: Orange; my family say I'm lying.  I say I like it because I think not many people choose it, and that it's the same reason I used to support Aston Villa at school (in Bromley) instead of Liverpool. (katan500: Hmm... a sort of underdog colour....)

Katan500: Jazz is... In 150 characters? 
Liam Noble: A way of working.  I have some characters left!  Materials can be made up of anything.

Katan500:  Cats or dogs?  As It's Christmas... artificial or real Christmas trees?
Liam Noble: Artificial dog and Xmas tree; real cats.  I like the way cats are; if there's nothing to do they just sit and peer at people.  Or sleep.  Excellent role models I think.

katan500: What do you want for Christmas?
Liam Noble: I honestly don't know.  I like to just stop everything and get drunk, joke about the company of in-laws and then quite enjoy it anyway.  I see it as a recharging thing before the trials of attempting to play the piano with cold, January hands.

katan500: How do you relax?
Liam Noble: I fail miserably at this most of the time; I should be relaxing now.  The best way is to do nothing, with no distractions.  In some ways practising is relaxing, the more mundane and technical (scales?) the better.

katan500: Who is your ideal partner (however you choose to interpret)? Did you see Alex Hawkins (that other pianist) avoided that one...
Liam Noble: Yes, he’s no fool!  *Laughs* Musically, sound is the most important thing.  I like to play with people who have a sound that then dictates how they choose their materials (notes, noises, melodies or words). The rudiments of music are important, but only as ways of applying a sound; and some people find they have a sound that resists whatever those current rudiments might be, so they have to modify them or look elsewhere.

Katan500: Tell me something about yourself (your instrument, your relationship with it...etc)
Liam Noble: That's a good way of putting the early relationship with the piano was intensely private in many ways, a way of looking inward, almost more like painting. Eventually I conceded that I might have to perform in some way, but luckily the piano is a desk job of an instrument, (katan500: I guess you sit behind it like a desk...)... so I still have something comfortable between me and the audience.  Then I discovered the microphone, and never looked back; I like talking to the audience, it calms me down.

Katan500: Why did you choose the piano?
Liam Noble: I think it was the desk job element; also my Grandfather had a grand piano, which I now have at home.  So I guess, in the way people often say, "I didn't choose it, it chose me".  Which is ridiculous. Apparently I was in the car, aged 2, and some music was on.  My parents switched it off and I started crying, at which point my nan said "That boy needs music on".  It's always felt like that, like medication.

Liam Noble: Are you attracted to any other instruments... in other words, would you be unfaithful to your piano?
Liam Noble: I love the guitar; you can put your fingers on it and come up with things that would never happen on a piano, and that sound different.  A lot of jazz musicians tried to emulate other instruments, Earl Hines doubling right hand lines in octaves to emulate Armstrong's trumpet sound, Bud Powell and Parker, Paul Bley and Ornette...I think Bill Frisell found a way of playing the guitar like a piano, and yet it's so specific to the guitar too.  So, I think it's a rich vein.  I used to play the clarinet, but left it on the tube. Those cases are so small....

katan500: If you weren't a musician what would you be?
Liam Noble: I think I might have done something to do with writing.  Even more chance to hide away after the deed!

katan500: I think you'd make a great writer *gushing*. You've taken to blogging like a fish to water, the last piece I read Gaku Self Help was so beautifully written. I'm so jealous. What got you blogging?
Liam Noble: Well, that was weird...I put it on a grant application for the Arts Council, that I would blog to attract new audiences.  A tour blog, you know, charting the trials and tribulations of a band on the road.  Except we weren't really.  So what came out was just stuff that was littering up my head, thoughts on music and life really.  But the interesting thing was, I'd get these things down, and then I got fascinated about how best to articulate them.  So it was like composition, the idea comes out in 20 seconds, the composing of it takes all afternoon.   I enjoy it, like a parallel activity to music, but without the training and knowledge...

katan500: How do you describe your musical style and where do you position yourself?
Liam Noble: It always feels incredibly pompous to talk about oneself like this, especially using "oneself" as a word.  Still, I've been thinking a lot about it recently.  With the recent passing of Stan Tracey, I've been watching a lot of his stuff on YouTube.  There are some videos where you just see his hands; it's really quite remarkable how he "drums" the instrument, and I feel a real affinity with that.  Monk and Ellington did that too, and they were my earliest heroes.

Katan500What would you say your musical influences are?
Liam Noble: Well, they are many layered, I think, for anybody.  Ellington was my first love, just as a prescence in that band, the power of the piano to cut through, but only by reducing the amount of notes horizontally and concentrating on vertical sonorities.  (Stravinsky's music has that too, and that points to all manner of other areas of music).  There's a pressure to be "burning", to be "able to play" that means that anyone who reduces their note output is making a brave decision.  I try and aspire to that where possible. Of course, through Monk you get to Bud Powell, and into the "burning" stuff...Herbie, McCoy, Jarrett, all deeply ingrained influences.  But then there are those influences I have sought out in order to freshen things up. Through John Zorn and Naked City I discovered Frisell, and also Wayne Horvitz and Robin Holcomb, a husband and wife who's compositions have influenced me enormously but who are tucked away on the periphery of jazz.  New things come up all the time; playing withTom Rainey influenced the way I thought about rhythm as well as ways of applying those ideas to free improvisation. There's also the type of situation where you "do the gig"; going with the flow of what's around you can be immensely rewarding, and in that sense the more you've music listened (and to some degree applied to your instrument) the better armed you are.
In the end, honestly, I don't see it as my music, I see it as a compendium of "found sounds" that come out in particular ways for reasons unknown to me.

katan500:  Who do you admire (alive)?
Liam Noble: That list is shrinking all the time....

Katan500: Who do you admire (dead)
Liam Noble: I'm not sure about admiration as a concept.  I like some things, not others.  I admire the musicians that kept going in the face of far greater adversity than many of us will ever face.  As to my favourites; Ellington, Monk, Stravinsky, Miles, in many ways the usual suspects.  And I admire Brubeck, he dealt with his popularity on the best way he could.

katan500: Is jazz dead? What do you think  this means? 
Liam Noble: It means cheap, lazy journalism.  There seems to be very little writing about jazz that attempts to capture it's feeling, the sensations of what it means to be around it or in it.  Maybe it's hard to tell the difference between dead and alive with jazz.  Maybe jazz is like a cat, sometimes just sitting immobile waiting for things to settle down.

katan500:Tell me about your last tour...anything amusing happened...
Liam Noble: We are all such serious minded and intense people that nothing funny happened , we just are really into the music and that's all (*mock earnest tone*). My favourite moment was in Birmingham, in the interval before the second half of the "Brother Face" gig,  announced thus: "Take your seats for the second half of Liam Noble's Brother's Face"  (katan500: HaHa.  Well that's funny. But how did you arrive at the name Brother Face?). Ah, this was via a Robert Creeley poem called "Histoire De Florida", it's one of the lines.  I love the idea of looking into the mirror and seeing someone else who is, in fact, you.  Weird, I watched a documentary on Henry Miller yesterday where he describes exactly that feeling, via a shaving mirror. (katan500: *wonders how much time Liam spends looking in the mirror*)  

katan500: Which piece of your work do you like the best / has special meaning for you?
Liam Noble: I try to avoid having favourites, it's like having children.  Some albums are quiet and thoughtful, some are boisterous, some eat too much chocolate and then feel sick.  By the time most albums come out, you're so sick of hearing it your head is in the next one.  But I like everything I've ever recorded; you just have to put off listening to it long enough so you can't remember having done it.  In general, I regard my inevitable failures to achieve what I wanted to do with a genuine affection.

katan500: Tell me something about the new album...
Liam Noble: Well, the first thing is that I don't know what form it will take.  It's a recording of our recent gig at the Vortex, and there's a lot of music to sift through.  I am thinking of putting it out as a downloadable file which, when you put it through a 3D printer, makes life sized origami effigies of the band who then play to you personally. There’s a variety of approaches in the writing, but mostly I tried to avoid the hard bop template of “tune/solos/tune” whilst trying to preserve the idea of melodies that have some kind of air of familiarity somehow.  Everyone in the band has a very distinctive way of approaching their respective instruments; a lot of strong characters together, and so there are some pile ups that occur which are great fun…I prefer that to anything too precise.  There are some clips of our Brighton gig on YouTube

katan900: Er... Shabaka is without head (*gestures decapitation*) and Chris Batchelor looks a bit vertically challenged...
Liam Noble:  Apologies. The sound is good though... 

katan500: When is your next gig?
Liam Noble: Sunday 15th December at Cafe Oto, I'm playing solo, then Chris Biscoe, Roger Turner and John Edwards play as a trio (there's three "sound" players!), and then all four of us.

katan500: Did I ask you what you want for Christmas?
Liam Noble: Yes... but I guess in the time it took me to answer these questions I could have changed my mind.  Can I have a 3D printer?
katan500: You might get an artificial dog... Thank you for being a good sofa sport. Merry Christmas and see you in the New Year at the Vortex Jazz Club with Pigfoot 10 January 2014 

Babel releases with Liam Noble include:
Let's Call This (with Ingrid Laubrock)
Romance and Revolution (Christine Tobin)
Tatterdemalion (with Rachel Musson, Mark Sanders)

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Babel Babble - an occasional look at some of the albums that arrive in my collection

With the demise of Babel Babble on NTS, I no longer have a radio outlet, for now at least, where I can show off some of the varied selection of albums that I accrue over time. Some bought, some given to me out of kindness, others because they want gigs or release albums.

Of course, the activities that I can undertake to get the music heard through my own connections is limited, but, via a blog like this, I can at least make a few other people aware of some of these releases.

The dates of the albums are variable, and, if you want to search further, do feel free to email me to ask, or use the tried and tested methods of the internet world. Google, Soundcloud, Bandcamp and so on.

Generally, I'll just write a sentence to give a quick feel but these are not reviews as such. I find them difficult to write, as I'm not a professional scribe of that type. It's pretty random, but feel free to hunt around.

So here we go with a selection:

Aki Takase, Han Bennink - Two for Two (Intakt). A masterful duo of the Berlin pianist and Dutch drummer. Just having read an article in the latest French Jazz magazine about duos turns me back on to this music form. Her new My Ellington is also a must.

Collider - Nantbach & Sandwich. A grand quartet from the North. Chris Sharkey, Matthew Bourne, Dave Kane and Chris Bussey. Free download here:

Corin Curschellas - Rappa Nomada. (Musikszene Schweiz). It must be at least 20 years old as an album. An imaginative singer, with songs in Romantsch as well as English. Features Steve Arguelles and Christy Doran (a guitarist never heard here in London) among others.

Cruz Control - Le Comment du Pourquoi. Good grooves from Eastern Belgium, I heard them live at Gaume Jazz Festival.

Philip Catherine - Coté Jardin. This is the album with which he celebrated his 70th birthday in 2012. He plays with his Belgian quartet. Not too difficult on the ear,  it was great to have him at the London Jazz Festival with John Etheridge.

Stian Westerhus/Sidsel Endresen - Didymoi Dreams. Improvised soundscapes from my dear friend Stian work together with the improvisations of Endresen.

Stevko Busch, Paul van Kemenade, Markus Stockhausen, Markku Ounaskari - Fugara (DNL). A generally gentle quartet from Holland, though it picks up on Stevko's Russian roots through the melodies (rather than the manic idioms).  There's also a duo, Contemplation (Kemenade, Busch).

Tingvall Trio - Vagen. This is one of the "happening" piano trios at present in Germany led by pianist Martin Tingvall.

Pablo Held Trio - Music.  Another German trio.  I have heard this trio several times through my trips as part of Radio Jazz Research. The trio just toured a couple of dates with Kit Downes' trio. The rhythm section of Landfermann and Burgwinkel is one of the most in-demand in Germany now and Burgwinkel's own band includes Julian Arguelles.

Papanosh - Your Beautiful Mother. A thoughtful and energetic quintet from France, which was part of their Jazz Migration scheme last year. Judicious use of keyboard and the horn arrangements make this band sound larger than it is.

Paul Dunmall/Mark Sanders - Pipe & Drum. Going to a Dunmall gig, he unleashes a whole range of albums to buy (usually for just £5). A whole cross section of bagpipes, mostly of the more lyrical variety fortunately.

Pete Cooper/Richard Bolton - Turning Point. Violin and cello, though of course Rick is also known as a guitarist. Pete is one of the leading folk violin educators around. I find the changing rhythms mesmeric and disturbing equally.

Pigfoot - 21st Century Acid Trad. Village Life continues. Batchelor, Noble, Marshall, Clarvis. Their view of trad goes way beyond anywhere. Reverential in attitude if not in approach. Just arrived, it's recorded from 2 Vortex gigs earlier this year. To be filed with the heartfelt Clarvis/Noble duo Starry Starry Night and the early Babel release of the masterpiece of miniatures, Blue Moon In A Function Room.

Stan Tracey/Keith Tippett - Supernova. Beauteous two piano trio which we'll never be able to hear live again. Stan was everywhere through his life but always distinctive. I have even found a version of him with Acker Bilk doing Stranger on the Shore (from 1968 I think).

Here's a start. Email me on

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Coming soon on Babel

As we get closer to Babel's 20th birthday in 2014, there are still new albums getting closer to hitting the wide world. Coming soon are Parallel Moments by Raymond MacDonald and Marylyn Crispell, No.1 with special guest Steve Williamson by Black Top and Ana by Emilia Martensson.The albums can be listened to and are available for pre-order on Bandcamp

Parallel Moments 

Parallel Moments features Marylyn Crispell the Philadelphia-born pianist and improvisor who collaborated with Anthony Braxton and other big names. For the album she teams up with Scottish saxophonist, composer and academic, Raymond MacDonald. Parallel Moments refers to the space created by the two players within an improvised framework that allows for delicate melodies and a textural intricacies. There is a beautiful intimacy and a rapport between the two players that seems nothing short of telepathic.
Marylyn Crispell (piano)  
Raymond MacDonald (soprano and alto sax)

No. 1 with special guest Steve Williamson



Black Top is a radical improvisation movement founded by pianist/keyboard/electronics instrumentalist Pat Thomas whose style (playing that is) exudes imperious charisma. His Co-founder is the multi-instrumentalist and composer Orphy Robinson. Black Top has been gaining a reputation for the innovative use of technology in their music as well as featuring other musicians in their soundscapes. At the core is improvisation which is set against a scene of 'black' musical influences drawing on the techniques of looping and sampling used in 'step dub', reggae and even 'archaic nubian' sounds.

Pat Thomas (piano, keys, computer beats)
Orphy Robinson (marimba)
Steve Williamson (sax)


Ana is Emilia Martensson's second album on Babel. Her first album And So It Goes... was with Barry Green. The reception of this album led to a description of her as 'the new face of British jazz 2012' by the Observer. This time Martensson is on her own although Green plays piano on the new album. The album also has input from Rory Simmons: tracks 1.3, 6, and 9 are written by him.  Sam Crowe wrote track 2 and and provided the arrangements, and Alex Bonney was instrumental in the production. Expect  from Martensson some very fresh and original treatment, and her trade mark lightness and clarity.  

Emilia Martensson (vocals)
Barry Green (piano)
Sam Lasserson (Double Bass)
Adriano Adewale (percussion)
The Fable String Quartet

Check out more Babel albums on Bandcamp

Friday, December 06, 2013

Brass Mask review in Downbeat - Davis Inman

Brass Mask, Spy Boy (Babel)
The debut album from this London-based octet takes New Orleans parade music and mixes it with original jazz compositions. Bandleader Tom Challenger has brought together a talented front line and an airtight rhythm section. Opener “Onnellinen” (Finnish for “happy”) has an earworm melody—a downtempo groove that would work well in a Bonobo or Four Tet song. Challenger supplements 10 of his own compositions here with three traditional New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian tunes. “Indian Red”—which has been recorded by Dr. John, the Wild Tchoupitoulas and Donald Harrison—is given a dutifully celebratory reading. Another traditional tune, “I Thank You Jesus,” is more somber—a slow drag that explores freer terrain. The original songs have a complex relationship with the parade music that inspired the project. On “Don’t Stand Up,” horns take free-flying solos over a funky tuba bass line and crackling drums, while “Wizards” has the feel of a Miles Davis–Gil Evans collaboration. Challenger has worked on a range of other projects, including two intriguing duos that paired reeds and organ. With Brass Mask, he’s found the ideal group to explore his ideas.

Listen and buy here: