Sunday, January 28, 2007

Vortex - evolution not revolution

The Vortex, partly by financial restriction but partly by choice, adds bits and changes slowly. Financial restriction - that's obvious really. It's a venue that has to survive mainly through its wits in prising out admission fees and money from the bar. (The Arts Council and other official bodies have tended to be relatively cool so far to offering anything.) This means that things have to be added slowly.
But. It means that it's possible to consult and discuss before things happen. A stage was built last weekend. The carpenters (Derek Drescher, David Mossman and Mike) had an average age of 65. However, the height and way it was packed with Rockwool was the culmination of 18 months of debate. Pressure to put it in now was due to the opening of Il Bacio downstairs. Food available every evening at last. We need to avoid too much noise affecting their business of selling pizzas. The archetype we thought of was what happens when Gene Calderazzo gives his all at a Partisans gig. (Gene is our role model of a drummer in many ways. The set-up of the club's kit is also thanks to his advice.)
And it's working well. A few musicians had felt that no stage created intimacy, though audiences were beginning to comment, especially at some of the full gigs. I myself have sympathy with the "no stage" approach, though it's clear that a stage works better, and that the height (just 12 inches) is the upper limit before any of that connection with the audience is lost.
Now, the next stage is improving the sound system and sorting out the piano. The p.a. is also better than it was earlier in the year, thanks to the help of Jeremy Farnell in cleaning up the wires and Harvey Brough for lending his mixing desk. But comments are always welcome as to how the final configuration should be. Sarah-Jane Morris had been saying that, while the quality was fine, it needed more monitors and more d.i. boxes. She was surprised that the club didn't have them yet. The reply was "Thanks. We're grateful for your reactions, and they will be taken into account when the next stage of improvement takes place."
One feeling that remains vital is that the Vortex is everyone's front room. Unprompted, both Sarah-Jane and Nikki Yeoh both actually described the Vortex like that. We must hope that this isn't lost. That loyalty and empathy between audience and the musicians created by the club must not be lost and it's an important part of David Mossman's legacy.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Bruce McKinnon

I am shocked and saddened to hear that Bruce McKinnon who was part of the trio Squash Recipe died on Wednesday 17 January of a rare cancer.
Obviously not as high profile as the other recent deaths (Michael Brecker and Alice Coltrane), I only met Bruce the one time when he toured with Tom Arthurs and Joe Sorbara last Spring. I was impressed by the thoughtfulness of his playing. Also that his parents were so supportive of him. The guys were walking along Charing Cross Road outside Foyle's when they saw people who looked familiar. Indeed they were, as Bruce's parents were paying him a surprise visit. I feel proud that Babel helped bring out their one release together. A promising musician who was only beginning to make his mark. I wish his family and friends long life.
By the way, there is a lovely tribute to Michael Brecker on the Bad Plus blog by Mark Turner.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Muenster Jazz Festival

It was nice to start the year at Muenster Jazz Festival. The best for me were the new group of Louis Sclavis, who always has that cerebral side to him, though he was using a really good young band. "L'imparfait des langues" not what one would usually expect from an ECM album. I also liked Atomic from Norway, Mikiel Braam from Netherlands, Fat City Wednesdays, who were "suburban nerds" from Minneapolis doing a great take on Don Cherry. Hopefully they'll come to London to play with Evan Parker some time soon.
Also an exhausting peripheral programme, including a morning bowling session, where I teamed up with Yann, a promoter from Perpignan, to help the entente cordiale. We even won one match, against teams from Holland, Scotland and Norway. I'll post our prize presentation soon. We didn't get to keep the main prize, a James Last LP called Voodoo Party with a bizarre cover and sleeve note.
But even festivals like this which are relatively cheap for the city to put on, and have a long history are now under pressure. What was good fortune that they were well supported by the Muenster has now become a great risk. If the city decides to pull the plug then that means the end of the festival. And that certainly is a possibility. Unfortunately, these decisions are more political than practical. That was also the problem for Caber in Scotland. Tom Bancroft was there who ran the label, and probably did more for improving awareness of the scene over its five years than any amount of official jazz networks could have done. Unfortunately, he was reliant on Scottish Arts Council funding, especially once his distributor went bust. Now the bureaucrats are back to using formalistic organisations that go so slowly, so slowly.