Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Jokes, Reverence and Indifference

I've been out and about a fair bit over the last few weeks, so there are a few gigs to report back on.

I alleviated Valentine's Day blues to some degree by heading over to the Metro Club on Oxford Street to see the kind of bill you definitely don't get every week - The Crimea, Piney Gir and Paris Motel all at the same gig! Unfortunately, despite the fact that ticket agencies were billing this as a Piney Gir gig, John Kell ( and I arrived at the venue to find her just finishing her set, having opened proceedings. The subsequent set from Alexander 'Festival' Hall (see what he did there?), hitherto unknown to this writer, only added to the sense of irritation, being as it was a bit self-consciously quirky and, ultimately, quite dull. So far, so disappointing.

Longstanding friends Paris Motel never disappoint though, and Amy May's malleable musical troupe have now expanded both in number and in sound. They find some room for some old favourites from the '071' EP, including the title track and 'Mr. Splintfoot', which with the beefed up sound now resembles Nick Cave's 'Red Right Hand' even more, but I guess even Nick Cave can't claim to own the blues. The new material is expansive and more muscular, and there's a sense of grandeur to rival The Arcade Fire. The sound engineering isn't so hot in the Metro though, so Amy's delicate but appealing vocals sometimes get drowned out. Nevertheless, it all suggests that the debut album proper from this band should be one of 2007's highlights, and there's a sense that this good humoured, romantic and charming group are becoming really rather special. They end with a lush, swooning take on Yeah Yeah Yeahs' 'Maps', providing further evidence that it really is one of the best songs to come from an American rock band in the last decade - it sounds just as magical in this very different setting.

The Crimea play with a vigour and intensity that never lets up, but their set is stifled by yet another indifferent London crowd. It's not the couples that cause the trouble though - it's the frustrated singles toasting their freedom. For God's sake, if you want to do that, go to a pub, not a gig! The familiar, highly infectious material from 'Tragedy Rocks' is dispensed with a bit early, and maybe with that crushing sense of obligation that often frustrates bands working on new material. The new stuff is a bit more forced and serious-minded - I couldn't decide whether or not much of it worked or not. I suspect the new album will require close attention. There's certainly evidence of development, but the strength of 'Tragedy Rocks' lay more in its melodies than its sonic invention, so I'm not sure they're pushing the right buttons here.

A rather different show last Friday at London's Barbican, featuring justly revered American saxophinist Joe Lovano playing with his Nonet, ably supported by veteran harmonica player Toots Thielmans, accompanied by the expressive, but slightly earnest American pianist Fred Hersch. The 84 year-old Thielmans was a real delight - taking obvious joy in performing, and delivering a set that effortlessly juxtaposed playful nostalgia with delicate melancholy. The musical relationship between Thielmans and Hersch was playful, and the results were frequently inspired. Thielmans' harmonica sound was consistently pure and clear, and he breathed life even into the hoariest of old standards. I particularly enjoyed his takes on 'Ne Me Quitte Pas' and 'Blue In Green'. The duo were joined by Lovano for a couple of pieces, and the subtle musical interplay was quietly inspirational.

I had massively high expecations of Lovano's set, with the saxophonist having just recorded my favourite jazz album of last year. He really is one of the most dynamic and creative improvisers in the world, with a clear knowledge of the jazz tradition, but a force and personality very much his own. If the set didn't quite live up to these expectations, it's almost certainly unfair to condemn it for this, as there were moments of palpable excitement.

I'll start with the bad though - a terrible microphone,which took the word 'unidirectional' beyond literal interpretation, rendered all the trumpet solos unintelligible. If the trumpeter took even a step away he became inaudible, and when he was right against the mic the sound was so muddy as to obscure the notes. My attention was also distracted from the other soloists by the off mic antics of the large band, who often slouched around, talked with each other, and generally looked oddly shambolic on stage.

Still, though, the playing was crisp and dynamic, and I very much enjoyed Otis Brown's very traditional drumming, on a small jazz set-up. When he exchanged 4s and 8s with the other soloists, it made for some inspired creation and release of tension. Tim Garland was also involved, and although the shout of 'let's hear from Tim Garland!' from one particularly moronic audience member riled me intensely (you can hear Garland in London almost every night of the week, given the ridiculous volume of work that comes his way), there's no denying that he provided one of the best moments of the whole concert when he soloed with just Brown's drumming for accompaniment. This was fiery, inventive and thoroughly musical improvising at its best.

Lovano's own soloing was as fluid and controlled as might be expected, and the themes were delivered with passion and clarity. Gunther Schuller's arrangements for the 'Birth Of The Cool' suite predictably provided the centrepiece of the show, although I wondered whether in live performance this seemed more reverent and less inventive than on disc. Lovano's own compositions from the same project fared better, with some really energetic performances.

A trip to Cambridge gave me a rare opportunity to catch a concert in the refined, over-comfortable environment of the Kettle's Yard art gallery. Regardless of the quality of music being performed, I could quite happily have drifted into sleep, slouched as I was on a couch at the side of the stage. This vantage point gave me an excellent view of the rather unconventional posture of Swedish pianist Soren Norbo, although pretty much completely obscured my view of the jovial drummer. Guesting with Norbo's trio was none other than British contemporary jazz legend Django Bates, albeit on a strange valve horn rather than piano. Those expecting a Bates performance may well have been disappointed, although his improvising on the horn was frequently remarkable and always dexterous. He even tried his hand at drums towards the end of the second set, with some more than passable free improvisation.

This was a strange old gig, and whilst the band seemed adept at a plethora of styles, from the broad and abstract to tightly controlled swing, their bizarre case of Attention Defecit Disorder left me a little perplexed. I sense that the main purpose of this gig was really to poke some fun at the jazz tradition by juxtaposing the very conventional with the very weird, and there was plenty of joking around, particularly from the maverick drummer. Some of this was light-hearted and effective, especially Bates' spontaneous and unpredictable bursts into song. Yet, the drummer's insistence on squeezing water bottles and banging on large plastic dustbins seemed unnecessary when his kit playing was creative and musical enough to stand on its own without resorting to gimmicks.

Some seem to cite Bill Evans as the chief influence on Norbo's playing, but I couldn't really detect this too much - I could hear much more of the European and Scandinavian traditions in his improvising than the American. His strange, stubby fingers didn't seem to restrict him too much, although his playing did sometimes match the stiffness of his posture, occasionally seeming more schematic and theoretical than emotional. Perhaps if the band had actually sustained even one of its good ideas to maximum impact, a little more feeling could have seeped through the veneer of slightly po-faced musical comedy. The encore, involving gargling water, certainly raised a few laughs, although mine may have been more in disgust than in amusement - it wasn't exactly pleasant! I'm glad I stuck it out though - Bates' horn playing genuinely thrilled me, and his use of electronic effects was intelligent too. The second set saw the band much more focussed and engaged, and there were moments I really enjoyed.

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