Thursday, September 08, 2016

Art and music

It’s not far from the parts of the brain stimulated by art and by music. Perhaps that's why artists and musicians seem so often to work hand in hand. Most obviously in the jazz scene here in London as an artist is Gina Southgate who has a regular display at the Vortex.
A third leg of this creative stool is maths/science. Eloquently put by the book “Gödel, Escher, Bach” by Douglas Hofstadter. And there is an evocative subtitle “An eternal golden braid”
Very rarely do all three come together. But very frequently there are two out of three, such as my own awareness of Escher and Bach, but not Gödel. Einstein was a violinist, as was Paul Klee and many artists passim who have become musicians, with two springing to mind being Terry Day and Leafcutter John. The art school movement of the 60s has a lot to answer for. Miles Davis could paint (of sorts). Evan Parker was originally a botanist, and Jake McMurchie (who leads Michelson Morley) studied maths.
My usual immediate reaction to the influence of science on art is that there is a strong precision involved, such as meticulous anatomical drawings by the like of Leonardo. Jazz musicians are usually logicians, solving problems of how to make music out of chord sequences, but also how to integrate with the musicians around them, as well as being able to assert their individuality.

My thoughts on this have been further influenced by my contact with mathematician turned artist Aurelie Fréoua. She uses terms and concepts such as ‘order’ and ‘chaos’, homing in on the spiral and on colour. But there is something which hooks up to jazz and even improvisation. Her work seems to have movement to it. Her spirals have intriguing ways of moving around colours, by the way that the paint is applied. While her abstracts start with her working from a wholly blank canvas, going with the flow, before actually recognising imagery which emerge from her subconscious. So there is an element of improvisation.
Like any good artist, she is fearless, though well aware that her work needs to communicate.
This was the case in a portrait of me that she has done. Completely transforming my complexion, clothing and hair but getting over her own vision of me!

She has been developing in a parallel way to many musicians whom I know and using the same attitude. I wonder if she will respond as much to the music as a stimulus to creativity, in the way that many musicians have responded to art?

The new Vienna School of Jazz: Namby Pamby Boy and Vienna Improvisers Orchestra 2016

The Viennese jazz scene is evolving. And, with the signing of Namby Pamby Boy on Babel, we are part of it. I went to Vienna for the launch of the new eponymous album at Konzerthaus. And enjoyed a great gig with over 250 there. How would I describe it? Bits of early Acoustic Ladyland, Led Bib, prog, New York downtown (reflecting Fab Rucker's work with Bobby Previte perhaps) and snatches of the approach of Weather Report (which of course was founded by an Austrian, Joe Zawinul). It has a lot of drive and positive enthusiasm, which could make it one of those bands that we dream of - which can, without compromise, perform also in 'non-jazz' environments. Of course, there was the Vienna Art Orchestra, which spawned a number of great musicians, such as Wolfgang Puschnig as well as leader Matthias Rüegg. Matthias, along with Christoph Huber, was one of the founders of Porgy & Bess, one of a handful of imaginative jazz clubs continuing in Europe today.  Another important 'link' in the Austrian chain is Peter Herbert, the bassist who is on a couple of albums with Huw Warren, as well as Christine Tobin's 'Deep Song'.

Now we are coming across a great new generation. Hannes Riepler brought over some about two years ago: the Pichler brothers and Maria Neckam. Mark Holub, of Led Bib, is now in Vienna too, and has come over with violinist Irene Kepl, on a couple of occasions. A trio involving Swiss singer Andreas Schaerer and two Austrians (Schaerer-Eberle-Rom) performs at Cheltenham. Pianist Elias Stemeseder is in Jim Black's present band

Meanwhile, Julian Argüelles is beginning to work teaching magic on the next generation as a professor in Graz, one of the longest-established conservatoires teaching jazz.

I got to hear some of the others also, when I went to the Zoom festival organised by Jazzwerkstatt. The Vienna Improvisers Orchestra was the final concert. It is always intriguing to differ the various Improvisers Orchestras around Europe, such as those in London, Glasgow, Amsterdam (the Royal IO). This one is very much the brainchild of Michael Fischer who really makes the group move like a single instrument. The VIO's texture seemed to be strongly influenced by strings accounting for nearly half the line-up and also a strong vocal duo. Fischer allows a lot of space to many of the instruments to solo extensively. Particularly noteworthy, to me, was that of Alex Kranabetter on trumpet who was able to take advantage of the many sonic capabilities of the instrument, sensitively sputtering as much as playing technically clearly.

As with many such improvised gigs, it was a mixture of getting involved in the process, and enjoying the elements in the middle of the set, but it led to a grand climax which was worth the wait. So, watch out! The Austrians are coming.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Jazzahead - some thoughts

Jazzahead is the big jazz trade fair that has developed over the past ten years. It is now pretty vast. Despite spending three days there, there were so many people I missed meeting and working out ideas with.
I spent most of it with my Babel hat on, as there are several new albums - not least Namby Pamby Boy and the new duo of Elliot Galvin and Mark Sanders. Indeed I sat mainly on the Austrian stand!
It is rather enjoyable to have a question and find the specific person who might have the answer face to face. If it be about a venue in Estonia or a festival in Poland, the people who know are there.
But there are some new trends that I feel are there. And particularly I am concerned about the changing balance of live music - moving more and more towards festivals and away from the regular venues.  I reckon, for example, that there are now not more than 10 venues in the whole of Europe putting on adventurous jazz with proper fees on a regular basis. The Vortex is a second tier, with much more limited resources. However, the number of festivals is growing and growing.
Festivals are a great way for audiences to experience new things intensely. But there are only 52 weeks in a year. What about the rest of the year?
Take London. A dense and intense festival for 10 days in November. But on 15 February? Or 18 June?
I noticed this for the number of great young bands who have played at the Match and Fuse festival last October (N.B. 28, 29 October this year.) Now they are asking when they can play the Vortex again. I wish we could oblige them all.
Other things I found out - many bands are able to get travel support from their home countries to perform overseas. Unfortunately not, in general, UK bands. How can we 'compete'?
I sorted out the basics of our festival with Intakt in 2017. There is already a bit of information on the Vortex web site.
Showcases are patchy in quality when delivered, if not on paper where most look pretty mouth watering. It's part the problem of selection by 'committee'. However hard they try, the results are not always as good as they should be. Some, indeed, are probably not necessary for a showcase, as they have a commercial quality already or the musicians are known already.
Another part of the problem is that the groups only have 30 minutes. That puts a pressure on the band that means that the gigs don't really allow the bands to open out.
And a third is the time slot. A clear example here was Bokani Dyer, whom we at the Vortex know and love dearly. He had travelled all the way from South Africa and the showcase was at 0030. So the venue was a bit sparsely attended.
And certainly we have booked a few bands off the back of Jazzahead, even if a couple of years later. Such as Kaja Draksler last year, or Julia Kadel (playing in June)
I realise that the organisers are really trying hard to balance things out.
And a final thought is about how the press are beginning to disappear a bit off covering the scene. Very few proper 'press' journalists there, though I did meet the main German magazines and Downbeat. Things are moving more towards blogs and DAB stations on radio. For example, I was happy to meet Jez Nelson and Chris Philips, now radio buddies again at Jazz FM. But I most notably see it at the Vortex. For the past two nights, we have been privileged by the company of Bobo Stenson; while on Sunday and Monday, we have Tim Berne's Snakeoil. In the past BBC would probably recorded at least one of these (or else Enrico Pieranunzi who appeared at the start of April). Not a single journalist has asked to attend, nor a radio person. Likewise, relatively little advance coverage in the nationals such as Guardian. We need to redress this balance. Thoughts please?

May at the Vortex

Some great highlights as ever at the Vortex in May.
It starts with Tim Berne's latest version  of Snakeoil, now up to a 5 piece for two nights on 1 and 2 May.
Elliot Galvin then previews the material from his upcoming trio album on 3 May. There will also be copies available of his new duo album with Mark Sanders, which won't be formally appearing on Babel till September.
More great pianists during the month. (I am a sucker for them!) Perhaps the one we see/least is Lucian Ban on 12th, in duo with Mat Maneri.
Barry Green (4th) John Law on 5th; Marco Marconi (11th) Tom Cawley with Trio Red (17th); Pat Thomas (19th); Sam Leak and Bruno Heinen both playing solo (22nd) and ending with more solo (and quartet) from the marvellous Huw Warren (27th). And not forgetting Alexander Hawkins playing with Evan Parker (26th).
Gilad Hekselman, who has become one of our favourites, is back with Petros Klampanis on 29th.
Last but certainly not least, do check out the stars of the future with the Royal Academy of Music finals students on 30th and 31st.
Meanwhile Christine Tobin is back for two nights on 23 and 24 May (along with another piano genius Steve Beresford) in Brian Eley's special show about Alzheimer's.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

April at the Vortex

While the programme of the club is ongoing, there are always a few highlights and connections that seem to spring out every month.
This month, the programme is topped and tailed by gigs involving two of the most influential European pianists in jazz.
Enrico Pieranunzi.  Comes in on 4-5 April. It's a privilege that Enrico's London base has become the Vortex. We have had a trio with Geoff Gascoyne and Enzo Zirilli as well his Racconti Mediterranei involving the gorgeous clarinet of Gabriele Mirabassi.
For his concerts this time, half will be with a trio involving Andrea di Biase and James Maddren (and adding Fulvio Sigurta on 5) and the other half will be him playing solo. His touch is very classic, so it's not surprising when I found an album that he has done of Scarlatti sonatas.
At the end of the month, we have Bobo Stenson, playing with Martin Speake. They recorded together for ECM about a decade ago. Bobo has, along with JT, defined European piano identity for Europeans. They last played together at the Vortex in 2009 and you can see the result here.
Put 28 and 29 in your diaries.
But it's a month with all sorts of other things that one can be excited by.
On 12th, the Deep Whole Trio's gig coincides with Paul Rogers' 60th. So come to the party!!!
We are lucky that a couple of specials are there to co-ordinate with Stewart Lee's curated All Tomorrow's Parties festival. Namely on 10th, Alan Wilkinson's trio will play early evening and on 24th, we'll have Tania Chen.
I look forward to the gig on 10th in the evening. Terry Day seems to be playing better than ever at present. And it'll be great to have Tom Challenger and Shabaka Hutchings sparring, along with Jonathan Impett on trumpet (who was on the Babel albums by Amit Chaudhuri) and Peter Urpeth coming down from the Hebrides.
21st - James Allsopp's Organ Trio. This guy is always a blast. And he now seems to be becoming a member of Pigfoot. Let's see for sure on 30th, when the band celebrates 1972, a year of good and bad no doubt.
But then I can't forget that Stan Sulzmann is back as is Carol Grimes and we can hope that Gilad Atzmon will be focussed on his horn playing, where he is uncontroversially top notch. Good to hear him taking on Coltrane. Denys Baptiste did this a few weeks ago and it led us into the stratosphere.
We, at the Vortex, also take certain young musicians to heart. One such is Camilla George, who is back on Wednesday. A lovely saxophonist in the making, with pianist Sarah Tandy firing things up behine.
Anyway, as I called the month 'topped and tailed by two great pianists', so too this blog post.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Some Babel news

Babel Label at times gets forgotten in the hype of some of the new artists/labels on the scene. We've now been going for 22 years. But if you look it's been a good touchstone of some of the best of British jazz over this period. I am proud to see that, for one of the last Jazz on 3 programmes dedicated to British jazz, Babel-related stuff has a prominence. Check out the programme on and you'll hear Django, who nearly appears on a few Babel releases, but definitely as part of True Love Collection and Skull View, Big Air, which Babel proudly released in 2012, Acoustic Ladyland, whose first two albums were on Babel, TrioVD, and Steve Williamson, whose first recording for 20 years was with Black Top, released in 2014.
So, I would like to think that new Babel stuff is worth checking out - and owning.
Coming soon:
Michelson Morley - the band led by Jake McMurchie
Brass Mask Live - led by Tom Challenger and with a launch gig to come on 30 March at Rich Mix
The Saberton Album - a tribute to Pete Saberton, perhaps less known by the public but revered by musicians from all generations over here.
Elliot Galvin and Mark Sanders - one of the best young pianists teamed up with a great great drummer, who is a father figure to many.
In addition, the first two forays into bands who have no direct connection to these shores. Perhaps as the British seem to be bringing out their Europhobia, we are doing our bit for the opposite:
Hermia Ceccaldi Darrifourcq - we know Sylvain D from his work with Kit Downes. Valentin Ceccaldi is one of the most dynamic cellists, belying his young age, and Manu Hermia has been ploughing a furrow acrosss the Belgian scene
Namby Pamby Boy - Fabian Rucker's Austrian posse. As with many of these groups, the name of the band is ironic. Their new album is launching on 8 April at Konzerthaus in Vienna.
You can buy them via

Monday, March 14, 2016

London Jazz Festival - how we try to deal with it

We have started putting together our programme for the EFG London Jazz Festival for 2016. Out in November.
At present, I am collating a whole range of proposals  because, of course, the Vortex has limited space. How best to balance things out between the sort of gigs supporting our scene here in London and musicians from elsewhere in the UK or overseas. (There will be, almost certainly, our regular Mopomoso and London Jazz Orchestra dates, by the way, as well as double bills involving Dice Factory and Benoit Delbecq/Petter Eldh/Jonas Burgwinkel.)
The London Jazz Festival is not a guaranteed money spinner for the Vortex. With 30+ gigs a night going on around town, we have to be careful. For example, one of the best gigs, creatively, last year was Orquestra Mahatma. And there were about 15 only in the audience.
Also, we ourselves receive no direct additional funding for our programming. Of course, sometimes the gigs that we want have support from elsewhere. We are reliant, as ever, therefore on musicians' own co-operation with the club and our own enthusiasms.
Meanwhile, the Festival itself has already announced some of its own headliners! Of course, one of the other problems for the audience is that this may be the only chance to hear these line-ups when they are in London. But a punter can only go to one gig a night. So this immediately precludes the chance that something even better turns up later.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016


Jazz has survived by keeping a foot in the camps of the commercial and also the sector supported by grants/patrons.
Contrast the clubs and venues, such as the Vortex or Ronnie Scott's, with the parts which have been supported by the Arts Council. The reach of the Arts Council into jazz has been relatively short-lived and never that huge, in comparison with the largesse required to keep opera, the orchestras or the big venues such as the South Bank running.
I remember organising my sole Contemporary Music Network tour for the wondrous Billy Jenkins (soon to turn 60, by the way) in 1996 and the relative luxury and support that was given at that time - guaranteed radio broadcast and half a dozen gigs which got organised with virtually no pleading.
The 'commercial' approach has really been imported from New York, while the other could be thought of as more 'European', picking up on the philosophical, aesthetic but also the classical roots of the music. Clubs closing have been mainly the result of commercial exigencies.
The country in which the supportive approach has been seen to best advantage is Germany. Struggles of festivals and venues are mainly the result of a decline/cut back/questioning of public funding. If public support is reduced this is problematic, while the chance of growing without is difficult.
A recent example of the former has been shown by the latest querying leading from the debt of €300,000 of the promoters of Moers Festival. When the programme was announced on 3 March, there was no guarantee that it would take place. A new hall was opened a couple of years ago, courtesy of North Rhine Westphalia and it seemed to lead to the festival's long-term security. Basically, the programme is, for jazz and Vortex lovers, near perfect - many of the artists perform at the club, but rarely in as large formations as Moers could afford. Rainer Michalke, one of the co-founders of the Stadtgarten in Cologne, has been running for a decade and built on its roots of high quality improvised music, from all points of the compass.
And a clear example of the latter is that, up in the North, in Hamburg, a tremendous wide-ranging jazz festival, Elbjazz, had grown dramatically over the past four years. Virtually unfunded by the city or state, the festival grew, courtesy of the support of leading shipyards and also the involvement of some of the main jazz promoters, such as Karsten Jahncke - in the year that I went, the range was from Jamie Cullum via Joshua Redman and Troyka to Schlippenbach Trio and Mary Halvorson. With inadequate income from the general public/ sponsors and only a belated offer of more-than-token public support, the festival has been put on hold. But it will be revived next year, we also have to hope.
The struggle of jazz as peripheral to the mainstream arts world is shown by the fact that the festival took place in the shadow of the new Philharmonie rising nearby. Total cost of that edifice, much underwritten by the city, is €750,000, up from an initial €200,000! So, here, an attempt at a true commercially-based festival in Germany has foundered with the public funding safeguarding its serious-minded roots.
At least Tina Heine, whose brainchild it was, now has the chance to run the autumn jazz festival in Salzburg. This was the second festival that Gerhard Eder had created, following on from Saalfelden. Unfortunately he died suddenly and suprisingly last Autumn. So she will be able to take her knowledge of the scene to the neighbouring country which already has a few fantastic festivals.

The Moers Festival is now safe for another year. As the press release on 10 March said:
'moers festival 2016 will take place as planned, just like we thought it would.
Concern about the festival’s financial situation arose after the new CEO reevaluated the figures. Last night, the city of Moers signed a guarantee agreement and thereby fulfilled the new CEO’s condition to go ahead with moers festival 2016. Time will show to what extent the CEO’s financial assessment was correct.
Unfortunately, we lost precious time to advertise for the festival due to the uncertainties in these past weeks. Therefore we now need your help with advertising for our festival! Please support us now by raising awareness of the festival.
The best proof that the world needs moers festival is a sold out house on all four days.'
Clearly it's a relatively expensive investment for a town of just over 100,000, but who would have heard of the town outside the Ruhr area, had it not been for this festival?
Programme on

Sunday, March 06, 2016

The great pianists of Europe - Pieranunzi, Stenson

In April, there are two particularly great pianists coming to the Vortex.


Pieranunzi has now played 3 times at the Vortex. He is a musician whose New York 'home' is the Village Vanguard. But his London one is the Vortex!
With an amazing classical clarity, it is a pleasure that he will be back.

28, 29 April BOBO STENSON playing with Martin Speake

Bobo Stenson is one of those who defined the European piano style a la ECM, along with, of course, Jarrett, but also our late great friend John Taylor (JT).
Bobo recorded a decade ago with Martin Speake. So Martin has invited him back for his first visit for several years. He will be playing with Martin, Steve Watts and Jeff Williams.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

March at the Vortex

I try and keep up to date on some of the March highlights at the Vortex in a more quirky way than on the programme. But there's a lot on and I actually wouldn't really want to say that I prefer these to others.

These include
5 Phil Robson Organ Trio - With Phil now living in New York, his visits are to be treasured. Here with Ross Stanley (who was mind blowing last week on piano with James Allsopp and Ed Jones) and NY-meets-London drummer Gene Calderazzo.
7 Lume. Lume nights are always special, though not enough audience. Totally undeservedly really. Adam Fairhall has always sparkled when we've had him here. He'll be well prodded by Tom Ward and Olie Brice, no doubt.
10 Vein The previous gigs by this Swiss band (With Greg Osby and Dave Liebman). Now we have the chance to hear them alone. I heard some of this last year in Schaffhausen and can't wait to hear more.
11 John O'Gallagher/Hans Koller A thoughtful saxophonist is Mr O'Gallagher. Not many musicians can translate Webern for grooving jazz. John can. Glad to have him back with Hans Koller
13 Emilia Martensson with all star guests. Worth it for a great series of vocalists.
15 Sacha Rattle/Zeynep Ozsuca  + Bruno Heinen. A slightly broader variety of music. As James Allsopp pointed out to me, music by Berg and Lutoslawski are almost 100 years old. So not that 'contemporary' or 'avant garde' to our ears.
18 Alice Zawadzki and Box String Quartet.  We all love Alice. Box String Quartet could develop with a little help from our friends, into a new Kronos Quartet. Help them on their way!
19, 20 Festival of the Between. Alya has put together a mouth-watering combination of musicians fusing Europe and the Middle East.
25 Penny Rimbaud presents the complete war poems of Wilfred Owen.  Has the founder of Crass mellowed? He was always thoughtful, but here he brings out his strong views by focussing on a great poet. He's done it here before and I was very moved.
31 The Enemy Well not really.Kit Downes, Petter Eldh and James Maddren are great guys, when you get them away from the stage, at least. Back on 1 April with a double bill of Tom Harrison Sextet. 

Programming and more

For the past year, I have been as busy on programming the music at the Vortex in Dalston, as releasing on Babel.
It has helped focus my mind on the changing nature of getting to hear  this innovative music, especially live but also recorded - who is playing, where do you find it, what does it take to best hear it. Many of these questions move into more general ones about where we have time to get to experience culture, how it can be created - the problems of time, location and value - and more.
So, for now, here are a few initial thoughts on how the Vortex is placing itself.
The first thing to notice is the increasing difficulty of existing in the expensive environment that we are in. Rents are rising, as are all running costs in London, but income isn't! The chance of getting public funding, such as from the Arts Council, is getting harder; the number of venues is on the decline, according to a recent report commissioned by Boris Johnson by around 30% since 2008; yet the number of really good musicians who want the chance to play is rising. Jazz courses are doing a great job in nurturing some fabulous young musicians, even though they have to get smarter to work out how to survive. There used to be big record labels willing to help too.
Luckily, we have a sympathetic landlord in Hackney Co-operative Developments who has been able to keep the rent relatively steady. The changing nature of the area where the club is, in Dalston, and its accessibility by public transport (especially the Overground) has also been helpful.
Next then is to consider how to balance out the need for the music to be experienced and selecting what might be right for us. It's about finding the right audiences for the music and a steady income without compromising on quality.
The various solutions that the Vortex has been going for, over the past year in particular, include: moving towards more gigs per month (in February alone 46); encouraging more volunteers to do functions both in the office and in the evenings; and keeping a good relationship with the musicians. While the marketing has suffered a bit in terms of the spend, the club has nevertheless been able to increase turnover and numbers coming in through the door. Meanwhile, we have tried to balance out the music that is performed at the club. A whole range in terms of the styles which one can look at when considering the words 'jazz' and 'improvised'.
This weekend is a good case in point. On Friday, Ian Shaw delivering his customary balance of entertainment and musicianship, followed late by Wolf Off, a blend of electronica, grooves and improvisation from Loop Collective members; on Saturday, Julian Siegel Quartet (the highest quality original contemporary jazz) followed late by a jazz-rocksteady-ska band late, then on Sunday, two doses of free improvisation (Mopomoso and a night curated by Loz Speyer) and our Downstairs session led by Hannes Riepler. The busier more mainstream gigs help fund the less busy free improv.
As the number of musicians passing through the club rises, so the amount of interest in performing also increases. Both from the scene in London, but also from elsewhere in the UK and overseas.
There is partly a degree of self-selection in who is asking and who we interact with. We can't put on gigs with too little audience indefinitely.
So we have to keep looking, The club is hovering just above the levels to survive but it needs to strengthen.
But more on different elements of these anon.