Category Archives: Steve Williamson

downwithit.info: Jazz Gigs of The Year 2014

One of my New Year resolutions at the start of 2014 was to get myself out rather more to catch live Jazz performances. As the year ends it is time to take stock of what I saw and where I went.

A deep benchmark was engraved in February when legendary funk masters, Pee Wee Ellis and Fred Wesley played at Ronnie Scott’s. Their performance was commented on here and I rated them with an 8/10. I was expecting a deep disappointment when they introduced a female vocalist- so many promise much, but deliver nothing. In this case my lack of faith was exposed and confounded. Robin McKelle was superb and is a real talent to catch (if she ever plays any where else other than France).

2014 was the year when I made my first visit to East Side Jazz Club in Leytonstone. Denys Baptiste featured one May evening and I was there to enjoy the first of six visits this summer.

I was assured that I would enjoy Gilad Atzmon and they were right. His powerful and intense soloing merited my second 8/10 rating of 2014. There were times when I that he was going to blow his alto sax apart, such is the forcefulness that he has on tap.

Another saxophonist also merited an 8/10 the ESJC. I’ve always harboured a strong mistrust of sax players who play several instruments from Adolphe Sax’s brood. They are usually adequate on one and dire on the rest. Derek Nash made me review that particular prejudice (Gilad Atzmon is a fine multi-reedsman too). Playing with the Letonstone R & B Allstars in an end of Summer season spectacular, I enjoyed his showmanship and that of the rest of a band which also featured Geoff Gascoyne on bass.

In addition to playing several members of the sax family, Derek Nash also fronts several bands, which he uses to showcase different repertoires. Following up on a gig he publicised on Twitter took me to a bar called The Water Margin at the 02 (Dome) in Greenwich in late July. I suppose all musicians have performed before small audiences, but that night saw Nash and his jazz funk outfit, Protect The Beat open to no more than three friends of the band and five civilians, myself included. After some deliberation amongst the band about whether to play or not, pure professionalism kicked in and the result was a performance which rated a rare 9/10. Nash is a very entertaining frontman and his joy encouraged his band mates to excel. Particular mention should be given to guitarist Dave Ital and drummer Darby Todd, but the whole show saw great musicians triumphing over a sadly meagre audience.

My home town of Macclesfield hosts a summer arts festival, which is growing year on year and it was there that I attended a rendition of Under Milk Wood, which was another memorable evening. On the same weekend I also saw a re-creation of A Love Supreme on London’s Southbank.

Unexpectedly, and for no particular reason, a hectic summer of gig-going gave way to an autumn in which I only got to three live Jazz performances. Dylan Howe merited the second of my two 9/10 ratings this year, while I was disappointed by Abdullah Ibrahim at London Jazz Festival, and Steve Wiiliamson‘s long overdue return to leading a band also gave me the opportunity to visit Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho for the first of what I hope will be many visits.

All in all I went to 14 jazz gigs, none of which rated lower than 6/10. Out of these, the downwithit gig of the Year 2014 was:-

Derek Nash and Protect The Beat at The Water Margin, for a triumph of brilliant professionalism against the odds.

Well done Derek and here’s to getting out and about again in 2015, with seeing another performance by Pharaoh Sanders as my New Year’s wish. Hope I will have lots to tell you about this time next year!

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Steve Williamson live at Pizza Express Jazz Club, Soho. 1st September 2014

The summer of 2014 has hosted the welcome re-emergence of top British saxophonist, Steve Williamson. Back in late-June he featured in the re-creation of A Love Supreme (which you can read about here) and then guested on Black Top One (here). Although both of these performances gave a glimpse of his talents I was eagerly awaiting an opportunity to hear him play his own material as a leader. When I read about the September gig at The Dean Street Jazz Club I contacted them immediately, to be at the head of the queue. I enjoyed his playing over 20 years ago and it would be fascinating to find out how he had developed in the intervening years.

This was his first gig as leader of his own band, playing his own set for well over ten years. Backed by Michael Mondesir on bass, Robert Mitchell, piano, with Seb Rochford providing the drums (and last encountered here on percussion duty with Polar Bear), he was in superb company and he told us of his delight to be sharing the stage with them.

The first set opened with the unusual time signature of the lengthy Soon Come, which allayed any concerns that he may have lost his edge on tenor saxophone. Cracked Earth was next and I pondered the difference between performers who play their own material, rather than drawing on standards. I concluded that it depends on the quality of the material and Steve Williamson’s has tensile strength throughout.

Waltz For Grace, so old a favourite that my copy is on a C90 cassette, followed. SW switched to soprano sax and his anthem featured London-based Sardinian vocalist Filomena Campus, who has a most incredible jazz voice. Some people just sing while a very few others make use of an incredible instrument that they are gifted with. Campus is part of this small second group and I hope it won’t be long before I see her deliver her own set, as I’m sure that would be a treat.

Mandy’s Mood which sounds like a nod to Freedom Jazz Dance to me, took us to the interval.

Wakening opened the second half and was followed by Gary Bartz’s Celestial Blues, Journey To The Truth and Water Like Water.

Williamson’s confidence and assurance increased with every tune and this band, who were solid and unwavering in their support, will be a joy to watch if they come your way. I’ll certainly be hoping to see more of them as the days draw in towards winter.

As I’m confident that there is a great deal more to come, I will rate this gig as a 7/10 performance and bid the man himself a huge ‘Welcome back! You’ve been missed’.

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#One: Black Top

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As part of my mission to write about some new ‘jazz’ here at downwithit.info I was delighted to obtain this new live recording from Orphy Robinson and Pat Thomas who feature Steve Williamson as a guest on tenor and soprano saxophones.

#One is the first CD release from a series of live performances featuring a changing cast of collaborators.

The CD sleeve says: ‘Black Top. Utilising music and sounds influenced by the African diaspora providing a platform where experimental acoustic dexterity meets spontaneous technological soundscapes.’ Well worth a listen then!

It’s not easy listening though. Orphy’s marimbas run throughout and Pat Thomas is ever present with piano keyboards and beats. There are no immediate and obvious reference points after a couple of plays, other than a hint of Eric Dolphy’ Out To Lunch that I latched onto

I could spend the next three weeks listening to and then listening again in an effort to try to explain the three tracks here- but I won’t. I know this is a CD that I’ll return to, as it’s interesting and complex and when I do, I’ll add some more here. It’s a bit of a cop out but I don’t think Black Top deserve to be rushed at because it is to be hoped that this project will endure and go from this strength to future glory.

The set consists of three tracks:- There Goes The Neighbourhood; Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner and Archaic Nubian Step Dub.

You can get a flavour from the YouTube film of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, which captures the musicians performing this piece at their live recording at London’s Cockpit Theatre.

To watch, click or touch the arrow.

Archaic Nubian Step Dub closes the CD. Williamson stretches out and is at his most inventive on the shortest track.

My personal jury is still out on Black Top. That said, I am looking forward to seeing them live and hearing what they choose to release next.

On a revisit in late-August 2014, listening through headphones as background to some work, the final track was compelling, grabbed my attention and I went back to play it again.

You can visit Black Top’s website here

The band etc:- Orphy Robinson (marimba); Pat Thomas (piano, keys, computer beats); Special Guest: Steve Williamson (tenor & soprano sax). Live recording engineer: Steve Lowe. Recorded 31 January 2012.  Jazz In The Round, The Cockpit Theatre, London.  Sleeve: Ian Swifty Swift.  Label: Babel Label. Issued 2014.

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John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’. Live at The Queen Elizabeth Hall. Sunday 22 June 2014.

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Back in April I got my tickets for a key performance in James Lavelle’s Meltdown season on the. South Bank. Lavelle contributed to Straight No Chaser Magazine, an adventurous magazine published in the early 1990’s, which I used to get every so often- especially as it featured some exceptionally good musical tips and was closely linked to the, then current, jazz revival. He invited Editor, Paul Bradshaw to curate a performance and the result is Enlightenment, a ‘Re-envisioning of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.

Coltrane wrote A Love Supreme in August 1964 at a time of turmoil and great change in the USA. Living in a tranquil new suburban home in Long Island and following the birth of his first son through his relationship with his second wife, Alice, he took himself off into his studio and worked solidly for several days. His wife, famously, described his return as follows:-

“It was like Moses coming down from the mountain, it was so beautiful. He walked down and there was that joy, there was peace in his face, tranquility. So I said, ‘Tell me everything, we didn’t really see you for four or five days.’ He said, ‘This is the first time that I have received all the music for what I wanted to record, in a suite. This is the first time I have everything, everything ready.”

50 years later, for this London performance Rowland Sutherland has added to the original score and extended beyond the original quartet setting with and arrangement for a fifteen piece band which brought together British, Indian and African musicians.

So how did it all work out?

The first half of the concert comprised of three pieces. Byron Wallen came on stage with a Tibetan horn, which turned out to be a telescopic instrument which extended about three metres. I’d never seen or heard one before. He swung this around and made great use of several of the onstage microphones before reverting to trumpet, which he payed in dialogue with Neil Charles on double bass.

This was followed by a trio featuring harp, flute and Japanese flutes and a tribute to Sun Ra which, to my ears, captured the mixed strengths and weaknesses of a very strange individual, who would have been 100 years old this month, had he lived that long. I saw him once and enjoyed but I’m really not keen on his Space Is The Place Blue Thumb/Impulse set.

Whether presenting some key influences or showing the appreciation of diversity that helped to make Straight No Chaser such a good read, the scene was set.

Paul Bradshaw’s introduction to the re-envisioning of A Love Supreme offered a few clues about what followed. He spoke of the original piece and the treatments and embellishments that Alice Coltrane had made following John Coltrane’s untimely death in 1966. Perhaps most tellingly he referred to Coltrane’s sole live performance of the suite, at The Antibes Jazz Festival (a recording I’m not familiar with).

The introduction, on Indian harp was in the style of the Alice Coltrane version from 1971, which I first encountered on the Stolen Moments Red Hot + Cool 1994 release. Although it took me a while to appreciate it, I eventually came to quite like it, with its spiritual invocations from the guru, Satchidananda.

John Coltrane had a close working relationship with Eric Dolphy, who died in June 1964. Had he lived, there is a strong probability that he would have played on A Love Supreme and that’s perhaps why this version included ample bass clarinet contributions from Shabaka Hutchings. It was great to see Steve Williamson again but although he played some blistering tenor saxophone, he seemed remarkably underused, especially given that the original composition was conceived by a saxophonist.

The vocals and spiritual invocations were in keeping with Coltrane’s concept,and Coltrane’s whole meditation, printed on the original album sleeve was spoken in full by vocalist Cleeveland Watkiss. I can’t reasonably complain about them but I really missed the iconic double bass introduction and the whole feel of Acknowledgement from the original album. I’ll look forward to hearing the recording on Jazz On Three- it was optimistically stated that it would be presented the following night- but after I’d reported that on Twitter I was told by R3 that it will be broadcast in the New Year. I’ll be in the market for a CD too, if one gets released.

The arrangement was enthralling without being totally satisfying and rates as a 7/10 performance for my money.

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