Although 2017 is not a leap year, here at downwithit we’ve sprung like a feisty feline on the hunt. The great Donald Byrd has led us from The Catwalk to a sellout first night of a residency at Ronnie Scott’s, costing me more of a song than sixpence and featuring The Blackbyrds as the main course.
While working on my consideration of The Catwalk and explaining how I had first started to listen to Donald Byrd when his Best Of compilation was released in 1992, I noticed that his protégés, The Blackbyrds, were playing in London in mid-February. It took seconds to hit the club website and reserve a couple of tickets. A month passed quickly and a night on the town came along to add a bit of sparkle to a late winter’s evening.
There’s always a bit of a gamble involved in going to see bands that have reformed. The Blackbyrds did so in 2012 and feature three original members in the form of powerhouse vocalist and drummer, Keith Killgo, the mighty Joe Hall on six string electric bass and Orville Saunders playing a very funky guitar.
Any misgivings were left behind at the door and a satisfying starter was served up by saxophonist Christian Brewer and his band, Brewer’s Crew. Their lively jazz funk was well received by an appreciative audience out to enjoy themselves.
After a quick rearrangement of the small stage, the main course was delivered by an octet who paved the way with their anthem, Black Byrd, which you can listen to (in the form of the original featuring Donald Byrd) courtesy of Youtube:
To play click on or touch the arrow
After a great opener, one of my personal favourites, Dominoes, followed. It led onto a delicious smorgasbord of hits including Think Twice, Time is Movin’, the inevitable Walking in Rhythm, Do It Fluid and Happy Music, not forgetting the well-loved Rock Creek Park.
There isn’t a weak link in the current Blackbyrds line-up and it is very much in keeping with Donald Byrd’s legacy as a great and inspirational music educator, that they include young talent. Paul Spires on lead vocal has a unique voice that the smart money says we will hear more of, while the sax and flute duties were delivered without fault by Elijah Balbed, a recent graduate of Washington’s Howard University, where Donald Byrd formed the band in 1973.
As the set progressed, a trickle of members of the audience began to dance and that rapidly turned into a flood as The Blackbyrds infectious and tightly delivered songbook worked its magic. Although this is their first residency there, this will surely not be the last engagement at Ronnie Scott’s for The Blackbyrds.
The gig also offered the opportunity for me to say hello to Carl Hyde, the in-house photographer at Ronnie Scott’s. I have been aware of Carl’s work for some time and you can see a sample of it for yourself on his website.
All in all, another great night at Ronnie’s!
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Spare a thought for the chameleon and, perhaps a little later, after reading further, some praise. Why? Because it was the chameleon that brought us here.
The changeling that I have in mind is the late David Bowie. His 2014 single release, Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) utilised a big band with Donny McCaslin to the fore on tenor saxophone. McCaslin was later to play on Bowie’s Blackstar (which contains a different rock version of Sue without much sax) where he was showcased with a solo on Dollar Days (and to a lesser extent I Can’t Give Everything Away).
Beyond Now was recorded in April 2016 following Bowie’s death in January 2016 and McCaslin states on the sleeve:- “It was like a dream, except it was something that I could never have dreamed of. David Bowie was a visionary artist whose generosity, creative spirit, and fearlessness will stay with me the rest of my days. This recording is dedicated to him and all who loved him.”
Since the 1970s I’ve always been ready to listen to Bowie because he was a truly innovative and compelling artist. In mid-2014 I looked at a reprise of his Berlin songs recorded by Dylan Howe and it was my favourite contemporary set of the year for 2014. I’m therefore delighted that this jazz saxophonist who worked with Bowie has produced an album that he influenced. Beyond Now, which was released at the end of 2016, will be the first contemporary recording to be reviewed on downwithit.info in 2017.
Proceedings get underway with Shake Loose, a staccato funk piece that offers a great warm-up for McCaslin who covers the full range of his tenor saxophone, from high to low and back again with every stop in between. This could be a set opener as it certainly seizes the attention. I particularly enjoy the second phase, where things slow down a bit, the keyboards come in and longer notes are played.
McCaslin is content to operate as the lead accompanist on A Small Plot of Land, the first of two David Bowie tracks. Jeff Taylor supplies vocals on this ponderous version of a composition which was originally used as background to the funeral of Andy Warhol segment in the film Basquiat. The elegiac quality may possibly go some way to explaining why McCaslin chose to cover it here on an album recorded so soon after Bowie’s passing. It is a good choice, which repays repeated airings and which adds further layer of variety and texture to the album.
I need listeners to help me out on the title track, Beyond Now, as I think McCaslin is playing clarinet on the opening of this fine ballad. Jason Linder gets space to play a rather good piano solo here too.
Coelacanth 1 is a tune originally composed by Grammy Award nominated DJ and producer Deadmau5. McCaslin’s tenor paints a soundscape over long drone notes delivered from the keyboards. It is a contemplative piece in the style of so much that appears on ECM albums by the likes of Jan Gabarek.
On Bright Abyss McCaslin ranges over both the upper and lower registers of his tenor and shows that he is comfortable with the lower notes, which can often expose the limitations of lesser musicians.
McCaslin solos inventively over the increasingly frenzied straight ahead rock rhythms on FACEPLANT (uppercase sic). If Neil Cowley was to collaborate with a saxophonist, DMc would be a shoe-in for the job as this track has the same feel as some of the rockier pieces on Spacebound Apes.
With Warszawa, from Low, David Bowie and Brian Eno took us into new territory that seemed strange and somewhat challenging on a 1970’s rock album. Here, Donny McCaslin’s mournful tenor is played beautifully and this is a worthy homage to The Thin White Duke.
Glory builds slowly towards an engaging keyboard bridging section, before the saxophone comes in with overtones and sparkling upper register runs concluding with an exciting finish.
The Great American Songbook, that loose mishmash canon of jazz standards, is not known to have expanded to include the final track, but perhaps it should. Remain, originally written and recorded by Mutemath, is an exceptionally beautiful ballad, almost wistful in tone and the highlight of the album for me. It is just the sort of tune that Miles Davis could conceivably have chosen to cover in the twilight of his life. It is worth the price of admission to this set by itself. Although there are currently plenty of Donny McCaslin tracks on YouTube, at the time of writing, Remain was not one of them. However, you can hear a short slice of it on the album sampler:-
Treat yourself and play it now courtesy of YouTube. You won’t regret it.
To play, touch or click on the arrow
Donny McCaslin was born in 1966 in Santa Clara, California and was the son of a vibraphonist. He won a full scholarship to the world famous Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1984 before touring with Gary Burton’s band from 1987. In 1991 he replaced the eminent horn player, Michael Brecker in Steps Ahead and in 1998 he recorded the first of his 12 albums released to date. The Bowie link began when he was recommended by composer Maria Schneider and Bowie watched him and his band play in 55 Bar, New York City (which sounds like a must visit place in Greenwich Village).
downwithit.info will continue to cover selected contemporary CDs and Beyond Now has certainly got 2017 off to a great start. I wholeheartedly recommend this recording which has confirmed that David Bowie made an excellent choice of saxophonist for his last known projects. Cheers to The Chameleon for that and so much more!
The band etc.:- Donny McCaslin (tenor saxophone, flute, alto flute, clarinet); Jason Linder (keyboards); Tim Lefebvre (electric bass); Mark Guiliana (drums); supported by: Jeff Taylor (vocals- track 2); David Binney (additional synths and vocals, tracks 5 & ); Nate Wood (guitar, track 2). Recorded 4-6 April 2016. Systems Two, Brooklyn, New York. Produced by: David Binney. Recording Engineer: Mike Marciano. Mixed by: Nate Wood. Cover photo: Jimmy King. Art Direction and Design: Rebecca Meek. Issued as Motema 234310.
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Spacebound Apes is one of those releases that I had very high expectations of. In 2014 I took a look at Neil Cowley’s last album Touch and Flee. At the time I wondered whether it would survive the test of time as a set that I would return to. It did and I have enjoyed revisiting it occasionally over the last two years.
I was delighted when I received a copy of the current set to listen to and I said I would try to review it immediately.
Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to turn this around quite as quickly as I had anticipated and well over a month has passed by.
I’ve finally got there after some difficulty and it is time to publish, if only to mark this down as ‘done’ and move on towards other projects.
Spacebound Apes is a concept album and this sets the alarm bells ringing for me. The 1970’s and 80’s saw the release of numerous musical extravaganzas in which rock musicians, who had often delivered strong earlier recordings, were allowed to develop themed albums where absurdity was often a highly visible passenger in the stagecoach of grandiosity. Thank heavens for honest to goodness soul, pub rock and punk which provided an alternative and eventually sluiced out the Augean Stables of pomp rock. Sorry if this offends but you can keep Topographic Oceans, Tommy, Tarkus, Olias of Sunhillow and each and every one of Henry VIII’S six wives and don’t expect me to start work on a musical interpretation of The Labours of Hercules any time soon.
Does music benefit from an associated comic book, animations, short films, costumed performers and other embellishments? I suppose it can do but, in live performance, a short verbal introduction from the artist can take us into the world of our own imagination that can be even more powerful than an unwanted and superfluous picture or projection.
While struggling with Spacebound Apes I wanted to make sure I was giving the piece a fair hearing and I went to see a live performance by Neil Cowley and his band. Introducing his show, Cowley was engaging and unpretentious. All three musicians were very talented and were listening intently to each other. The first section offered the current album in its entirety, with an accompanying slide show which helped to set the scene for the track that was being played.
The second half dispensed with the visuals, without losing anything. Tracks included Bluster and His Nibs. When Cowley announced that the last song was called She Eats Flies the title led me to assume that we were in for something that would disappoint. However, he disclosed that the ‘she’ in question was a spider the size of a Labrador dog that lives at the bottom of his garden. That simple explanation conjured up an image and added to what we heard without needing its own comic strip, back projection or articulated arachnid prop.
Time to take a look at the album, which concerns a 43 year old male who is having a mid-life crisis. I don’t know about you (and this excludes all younger and female readers), but I’ve been there, done that and, over time, the scars slowly healed. If you want to know more about the concept under consideration you can google the Spacebound Apes website. As for me, I’ll just follow my usual format of offering a brief listening note for each of the tracks on the CD:
Weightless ia a piece on which the piano trio are supplemented by electronics. I particularly enjoyed the bass playing here.
Hubris Major starts with a further electronic phase before Cowley’s piano and the bass drum move us through another of his delightful numbers on which Cowley really conjures a sense of space.
Governance is a track with a staccato feel seemingly conveying an image of monotony and stultification. It is definitely not something to jump out of bed to in the morning.
The City and the Stars, a dynamic track. On the video, Rex Horan plays an electric bass hung down low in a stance reminiscent of Peter Hook.
The next track, Grace, is a beautiful tune that has a hymn-like quality. It is the high point of the set for me. Take a look at the accompanying images:-
Echo Nebula presents us with another dreamy soundscape.
The Sharks of Competition led me to imagine a frenetic combination of Devo and Joy Division, which is OK in its place.
Duty To The Last. Brooding sense of menace gives way to the solemnity of an elegy.
Garden Of Love. Conjuring images of passing through something and marvelling without engaging.
Death of Amygdala. The Amygdala lies deep within the brain and, according to Wikipedia, ‘…performs a primary role in the processing of memory, decision-making and emotional reactions.’ A dreamy track, which has a classical feel about it and while pleasant enough could possibly do with more development to turn it into something a little more special.
Finally, The Return of Lincoln is a short closing track.
Overall, I was disappointed by Spacebound Apes. As stated, I’ve liked some of Cowley’s earlier work and the band delivered a fine live performance at Islington’s Union Chapel at the end of October 2016. I feel somewhat churlish in my reaction, as a great deal of thought and effort has obviously gone into the making of this. But I also have a deep suspicion, verging on aversion to ‘concept albums’. This one offers up a series of moods and soundscapes, as they all do with varying degrees of success, but, for me, the overall dish doesn’t work.
I’m not giving up on Neil Cowley and will return to tracks like Grace and Weightless whilst hoping that he navigates away from grand concepts in the future. It really isn’t what the World needs, while a great piano player and composer will always be in demand. The Neil Cowley Trio are well worth catching live and play with great energy so don’t ignore them if they are in a venue near you.
The band etc:- Neil Cowley (piano); Evan Jenkins (drums); Rex Horan (bass); Leo Abrahams (guitar, FX). Produced: Dom Monks. Recorded: RAK Studios, London. Released September 2016. HideInside Records.
Readers, I’m sorry that it has taken me so long to get round to taking a look at this celebrated release from Kamasi Washington.
Every so often an artist comes along that it is important to have an opinion about. Kamasi Washington is of that ilk. His first release is a triple CD set featuring nearly three hours of music. Some of the tracks are indeed epic in scale featuring large choirs together with a 32 piece orchestra and he appeared live in concert at the BBC Proms at the end of August 2016. His tenor saxophone work is likened to that of some of the greatest musicians of all time. The album is entitled The Epic for a reason and trying to do it justice will be no easy task, so I will be doing so over the whole of August and September 2016, starting with some initial impressions before working towards some conclusions by the end of September 2016. If you want to join me and have some dialogue, get yourself a copy. There is also an opinion poll at the end of the piece that you are welcome to participate in (the current results are shown after you have voted).
Volume 1: The Plan
Change of the Guard is dedicated to Austin Peralta, a musician of great talent and tremendous promise who died at the age of 22. You can read about him here.
Askim contains a long solo which builds from the mellifluous and slowly moves towards the discordant before calm returns. This track introduces us to another side of Washington’s playing. Again, I find the choir distracting.
Isabelle is played by a septet and the choir take a break. It is a gentle contemplative piece.
Final Thought is funkier with Brandon Coleman’s organ to the fore before Washington comes in with an exciting and powerful solo.
The choir are back on The Next Step. KW’s sensitive solo does not to be surrounded and this piece is over-embellished.
The Rhythm Changes is a song featuring Patrice Quinn on lead vocals, initially accompanied by the trombone of Ryan Porter. Again, I’m not convinced by this saccharine confection.
Volume 2: The Gloroius Tale
Miss Understanding. Trumpet run from Igmar Thomas
Leroy and Lanisha. A light lilting piece featuring a duet between trombone and tenor saxophone. A high point of the opus so far.
Re Run is next and the gargling choir are back on a Latin flavoured piece which turns into something special during Washington’s solo. Get out those soft jazz dance shoes, or better still, wait for the superior version of this track on the third CD, where the choir do not feature (although Washington’s solo is far less interesting).
Seven Prayers is played by a nonet with both acoustic and electric bass. Instruments are voiced in unison and guess what, they sound a little like a choir.
Henrietta Our Hero features another lead vocal from Patrice Quinn, which gives way to an enjoyable chorus on saxophone from Washington.
The Magnificent 7. Once again some great soloing from Kamasi but the choir is present to dilute the power of what he is serving up . The composition is a good one that is over developed and submerged in cloying sweetener. I could imagine this working on a big festival stage and this is stadium-sized rather than club jazz.
Volume 3: The Historic Repetition
Re Run Home is one of the most immediate tracks on the entire set. Uptempo and anthemic. However the soloing seems a little simplistic. You can have a listen courtesy of Brainfeeder on YouTube:-
Cherokee starts like a bright and bushy 1990’s Diana Brown track before the lead vocalist comes in. She doesn’t do much for me, I’m afraid.
Clair de Lune is a dreamy realisation of the Debussey piece on which the choir makes an appearance. There is a Hollywood, 30’s feel on this.
Malcolm’s Theme is a tribute to Malcolm X with extract from a speech which is liberal in its content and argues in favour of religious co-existence between Islam and Christianity and black and white. The music takes second place here on a piece that probably would not have made it onto a single CD, although KW’s solo is strong and it is a pity it is compromised by the other more indulgent aspects of this track.
The Message is a pleasant jazz funk meander which provides a springboard for a deft and exciting KW solo but is overlong.
My initial reactions are that Kamasi Washington overdoes things with this triple set. He offers up a full menu in one sitting when we would probably be better served with smaller portions featuring complimentary favours rather than a whole gargantuan blow-out. As will be clear by now, the choir doesn’t do much for me but some of you may like it. Washington clearly has at least one strong film score in the locker as there is much about The Epic that signals this to be the case.
I have added a quick single choice poll to see what you and fellow readers think of Kamasi Washington. Please feel free to complete and also to add a comment to get a lively debate going.
I’ll keep on listening and try to supplement this within the coming weeks.
First update:- Saturday 3 September:- A recording of KW’s BBC Proms performance from The Royal Albert Hall is on BBC iPlayer for the next 26 days and I have just listened to it. Unfortunately, the presence of The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and choir resulted in the aspects of KW’s work that I enjoy least being aired. The audience who saw the performance were very vocal in their appreciation and seemed to enjoy themselves.
Update: Tuesday 6 September 2016:- Six responses to the opinion poll so far and all positive, with five people wanting to hear more and one going for the even more enthusiastic ‘future of jazz’ position. Please keep the responses coming in and feel free to leave a comment.
Update: Thursday 8 September 2016 The liveliness of Final from the first CD was exciting after reviewing Grant Green’s Street of Dreams. The stripped down band can play and this was fun.
Update: Friday 9 September 2016. Miss Understanding is 8 minutes and 46 seconds long and the seven minutes that the choir sit things out for is very good. The introduction is somewhat ostentatious but after 90 seconds it settles to a fine track on which KW plays with fire and gusto.
Update: Sunday 11 September 2016. 8 votes so far, with 6 regarding KW as ‘Interesting new talent’ and one each for the other two choices
Update: Tuesday 16 November 2016. 77% of voters, so far, regard KW as ‘Interesting new talent’; 8% agree that KW is ‘the future of jazz’ while 15% go for’over-rated and unlikely to listen to again’.
Update: Monday 2 January 2017.
I’ve not felt inclined to re-listen to’The Epic’. Eventually I will get round to a selective re-listen concentrating on the tracks that I do like. I’ll also watch out for Kamasi Washington’s next release in the hope that he veers in the direction of work with small bands without choral arrangements and vocals. Just in case you are unable to read the poll on your machine or phone, as of today 15 readers had voted in the poll:- 67% of voters, as of 2/1/17, regarded KW as ‘Interesting new talent’; 20% agreed that KW is ‘the future of jazz’ while 13% went for’over-rated and unlikely to listen to again’. Thanks for taking part- I will leave the poll open until KW releases another set.
You need to vote to view the results as only the premium version of this plugin offers a preview option, although I will visit and provide a breakdown in the updates from time to time.
The latest Polar Bear album has been out for about a month now and it was to have been my contemporary album of the month for April but other demands on my time conspired against reviewing it until now. It’s even more accessible than last year’s In Each And Every One and I have enjoyed listening to it, both at home and on the bus and tube to work, where it has enlivened my trip through London Bridge.
Life, Love and Light Is an invocation which gets things underway. It wouldn’t be out of place on a Pharoah Sanders Impulse set and it is a meditation designed to set up a train of thought and take you somewhere else.
We Feel The Echoes moves things along. I like it but the backing beats feel somehow independent from the the gentle meditative saxophone improvisations. The track has a sense of calm, despite the pacy percussion. It is restorative music offering a chance to slow down your heart rate and let your mind go where it will.
The First Steps has a driving beat underlying it as a horn player contributes a simple phrase.
Of Hi Lands would not be out of place on an ECM album, which probably isn’t surprising as Seb Rochford recently worked on Andy Sheppards ECM debut Surrounded By Sea. The introduction is followed by a sax led, beat driven track which is how I would imagine may be like waking up while on some sort of bespoke safari to a place where unfamiliar sounds surround.
Don’t Let The Feeling Go includes vocals from Hannah Darling and Gar Robertson, while while Shabaka Hutchings makes an appearance on tenor saxophone. The track has a great and relentless bass line which is reminiscent of dub reggae and reminded a second set of ears of a visit to Morocco. You can take a listen courtesy of YouTube:-
To play touch or click on the arrow
Unrelenting, Unconditional is a long meditative track and is definitely in ECM meets Augustus Pablo territory. Once more there is an Eastern feel here, or maybe it is the influence of the high Californian desert where Seb Rochford mixed this album. There’s an enjoyable piece of solo percussion before we have a reprise of the Don’t Let The Feeling Go vocals to close.
So Polar Bear have produced another set which oozes atmosphere. Indeed, when it gets heard by the people who seek out and source engaging yet somehow brooding background music for TV there is likely to be a regular stream of royalty payments.
I hope to catch Polar Bear live in the not too distant future and if I do I’ll tell you about it here at downwithit.info
The band etc: Mark Lockheart (tenor saxophone); Pete Wareham (tenor saxophone); Tom Herbert (bass); Leafcutter John (electronics); Sebastian Rochford (drums). Written and Produced by Sebastian Rochford. Recorded by Sonny at Assault and Battery Studios, London. Artwork: Sanchita Islam. Released on The Laef Label. April 2015. Website: www.polarbearmusic.com
It was my birthday the other week and I requested a copy of Ted Gioia’s The Jazz Standards- A Guide to The Repertoire. It is an excellent reference book and one that I will dip into with regularity.
In his introduction Gioia considers why he has felt unable to include very few recent compositions amongst the 250 plus tunes that he identifies for his opus. He concludes that: “The jazz repertoire is not as fluid as it once was and the same process of codification that has resulted in works such as The Real Book (a compendium of sheet music for widely recognised jazz tunes, or ‘heads’ as they are known in the trade) has also made it difficult for newer songs to enter the standard repertoire.”
I don’t suppose I’m alone in experiencing irritation when a classic 50’s or 60’s jazz album moves from a track that really has something to say to yet another hoary Broadway number (thank heavens John Coltrane never got round to recording a version of You’ll Never Walk Alone!). Occasionally a jazz artist will have a go with a modern popular song but mostly they draw on the standards.
So, I was intrigued when I read of Dylan Howe’s recording of tunes from David Bowie’s Berlin period. It was a nailed down certainty for my latest look at a contemporary jazz set.
I can remember listening to Low, fresh from the shops and in the possession of a mate who is the biggest Bowie fan I’ve ever met. The songs were great but it was the instrumentals on Side 2 that were so incredibly refreshing and different. There was a stark bleak beauty to them and we dived fathoms deep as we pondered their significance next to Buzzcocks, The Pistols and The Clash. There was a further selection of instrumentals on Heroes, while Lodger was a part of Bowie’s Berlin trilogy, but is sadly, short on instrumental pieces.
This recording was a labour of love for Howe and he raised the money to undertake his project through a Kickstarter crowdfunding effort, which you can read about here.
So to the music. I’ve followed the song title with Bowie album that the original appeared on.
The album opens with Subterraneans (Low) and it is immediately apparent that this is going to be an exceptional recording, initially with Mark Hodgson’s wonderfully rendered double bass to the fore before Ross Stanley adds piano to the underlying layer of syths. Weeping Wall (Low) is as bleak and dolorous as the original before a tasteful piano solo that eases and offers hope, followed by a percussive break that reintroduces tension.
All Saints was a bonus track that did not appear on the original release of Low. This one is like Bowie meets the great quartet of John Coltrane. Julian Siegal and Brandon Allen’s saxophone work is exemplary, with Allen taking the solos. Some Are was recorded by Bowie during the Low sessions but didn’t make the cut for the original album either. It is another minor key piece with a subdued regal feel to it. The saxophonists join in at the midpoint.
The first of two takes on NeuKoln, NeuKoln- Night (Heroes) is next up and takes me in my imagination to the centre of a scurrying and bustling city centre that is unfamiliar and slightly menacing, where there may be danger down those side streets.
Art Decade (Low) seems to convey a sense of ennui and loss. In its long fade out it moves towards a meditative state of calm. Warszawa (Low) could be used as a soundtrack for a film of the aftermath of some destructive action until it takes on a jauntiness and swings out, bringing hope where Bowie left us with none.
Neukoln- Day (Heroes) is lighter than its cousin but it still conjures up an image of a grey, drizzly day, while Moss Garden (Heroes), ever a track I’ve returned to listen to, has obvious attractions for a drummer/percussionist and features Dylan Howe’s famous dad on koto, which is a stringed dulcimer-like instrument.
I’ve enjoyed repeated listens to Subterranean and recommend it strongly. I’m hoping that in due course, the Bowie fan I referred to above may give us a second opinion (I’ve sent him a copy).
Dylan Howe is presenting a series of performances in the UK in September featuring the great Andy Sheppard on tenor saxophone, so you are likely to get my opinion on how this comes over live, in a while.
The following short promo gives a flavour of some of the tracks and publicises the tour. To watch, click or touch the arrow.
The band etc: Dylan Howe (drums); Mark Hodgson (double bass); Ross Stanley (piano, synths); Julienne Siegal (saxophone); Brandon Allen (saxophone); Nick Pini (double bass: Neukoln night & day); Adrian Utley (guitar: Warazawa); Steve Howe (koto- Moss Garden). Released 2014. Recorded: Eastcote Studio, Motorik Studios, Pipe Dream Studios. Produced and Directed: Dylan Howe. Graphic Design: Sleeve photos Zoe Howe, Dylan Howe, Victoria Harley. Issued as Motorik MR1004
I’ve made a commitment to look at least one relatively new recording each month. So here we go with the third set by musicians that you may be able to see at a venue near you, should you choose to accept the challenge!
The traditionalists can roll their eyes in the direction of the moon and be dismissive- but here at downwithit we will attempt to be adventurous. As I will be pushing well beyond hard bop and even 60’s free jazz, there will be hits and misses, hopefully a few rubies inspite of a little dust.
This month’s choice is In Each and Every One, the fifth and most recently released album by London based, Polar Bear. I’ve been playing it for about a month, slowly trying to get a sense of things.
At the point of writing this, I’ve been pondering whether Polar Bear’s music fits here. Is it jazz? Well, yes, but it relies heavily on electronic sounds. What would Horace Silver think? What would Coltrane’s opinion be? Would Miles Davis find something new and refreshing in it? The question was answered for me, in my own mind, when I put on Charles Mingus’s Black Saint and the Sinner Lady after my last play through of In Each and Every One. Polar Bear are in search of something new and it is important to respect them for that.
The set starts with the aptly titled Open See, an introspective scene setter that I could imagine as the soundtrack for a modern dance piece at Sadlers Wells. Electronics maestro Leafcutter John is working hard on this one and, given his electronic expertise, an imagined three-way conversation between himself, Brian Eno and Miles Davis would have been an interesting one. It is quite a delicate piece that acts as a signpost which indicates that the rest of the album will defy neat categorisations.
Be Free is a percussion centred tune with saxophone that offers a nod in the direction of some of Ornette Coleman’s work. This is a foot-tapper, with a sense of a battle to restrain discord, that is just about won.
Chotpot strikes me as being a little too flippant but eventually it wins me over. It’s a long time since I’ve listened to Penguin Café Orchestra but if on a blind listening I were told that this was one of their tunes I would be easy to convince. There’s a great bassline hidden away in this performance, by the way.
All K’s and Q’s Now gets off to a frenetic start incorporating some engaging horn playing before it gives way to electronica that is reminiscent of Tangerine Dream (not that I’ve spent too much time listening to them). The track concludes with a brief and disconcerting passage that seems to sound a little like an electronic take on human distress. Not everything in Polar Bear’s garden is rosy.
I couldn’t find any material from the album on YouTube (although there’s some great stuff via the website link below), so I have lifted some live footage courtesy of Band On The Wall:-
To watch click or touch the arrow.
WW is an interesting noise, nothing more to these ears that are currently struggling with the beautiful but discordant excesses found on some Albert Ayler recordings. Lost In Death Part 2 wins me back with its possible resemblance to something that could sit alongside Bartok’s folk tunes. Once again, Leafcutter John plays his part and there is some great plaintive saxophone as it ends.
Maliana is a complex piece with several phases and what I perceive as a slight African feel, which is probably conveyed to me by the drums. There is a phase that almost has a Glam Rock edge to it- but don’t mention the Glitter Band! Lost In Death Part 1 Doesn’t have a great deal to commend it apart from some interesting bass but Life and Life unveils a splendid brooding theme evocative of storm clouds gathering and of Jan Gabarek.
Two Storms is a further soundscape: a series of scales and a melodic start giving way to what I imagine the death of a whale by strangulation and its rebirth could conceivably sound like before Sometimes closes this adventurous and pleasing recording with more brooding.
I’ll definitely try to see Polar Bear live this year if I get the chance and I’m certainly delighted to be able to write about the challenges that they present here. However, at this stage, I find their music a bit of a stretch from my comfort zone and for the time being I’ll content myself with what may prove to be a ruby but won’t be immediately breaking my back or pocket to obtain their back catalogue.
Incidentally, the set is dedicated: RIP Stan Tracey. A Wonderful Man
The band etc: Mark Lockheart (tenor saxophone); Pete Wareham (tenor saxophone); Tom Herbert (double bass); Leafcutter John (electronics); Sebastian Rochford (drums). Sonny (Sonny Channel). Produced by Sebastian Rochford. Recorded by Sonny at Livingston Studios. Artwork: Criag Keenan. Released on The Laef Label. Bay 90 1st April 2014. Website: www.polarbearmusic.com