Aron and Adb al Malik

It seems everyone ends up in Paris, eventually.  Aron Ottignon was raised in Auckland, New Zealand and I knew him when he was still a prodigious jazz pianist, playing professional gigs around town at an unusually young age.

Since then Aron’s played his way through the scenes in Sydney and London, released a solo album under the name Aronas, and now he’s ended up in Paris, playing with rapper Abd Al Malik.

As well as touring with Abd al Malik, Aron has appeared with the band on French TV shows such as Le Grand Journal, and earlier this year played at the Victoires de la Musique in Lille:

Aron was sneaky enough to film this very performance from his own perspective, on his iPhone…

And, if you’re quick, you can even see his iPhone in the live footage from France 4! :

Poni Hoax

Poni Hoax are a band from Paris. They sing in English, and have been playing since 2001, but I don’t think they’ve yet quite crossed the watery divide between French indie acclaim and anglo-saxon stardom.  Navigating between the austerity of Kraftwerk and the masculine emotion of The Doors, there’s something about their electro-disco style that suits these grey times.

In addition, as befits a consciously stylish band from the city of Gainsbourg and Godard, their video clips are top notch piece of film-making. Antibodies features a naked chick and a bubble in an airport:

And The Paper Bride features a man, a swimming pool and a dance:

Don Ellis “Indian Lady”

The Don Ellis Orchestra charted an original path through the jazz of the late 60s and early 70s, producing some remarkable music for big band.

With an emphasis on electronics, non-conventional time signatures and improvisation, there are more than a few fans who consider his Orchestra to have been one of the most advanced in modern jazz. The 1971 live album Tears of Joy is worth checking out to hear what this band was all about.

Ellis himself died in 1978, cutting short his remarkable career, and his music fell back into relative obscurity in the neo-conservativism of 1980s jazz. Very little film footage of the band seems to have survived: this VHS copy of the Ellis composition “Indian Lady” at a concert at Tanglewood in 1968 is one of the few films of the Don Ellis band on YouTube.

Behind the Lines

When one posts a Phil Collins video, one is on shaky ground. However, music from your childhood sticks in your memory like week-old pesto to a fridge wall. And this is a day to scrape off some of that green gunk.

My clueless 13 year-old self received a double album on cassette (Face Value/Hello, I Must be Going) as a birthday present, and not knowing any better, I decided I quite liked it.

I soon learned to keep such opinions to myself: and to day, this double cassette remains the only Collins in my collection. I soon found other monstrosities to obsess over (who remembers Arrested Development?).

And I still think my favourite Phil Collins song is this one: it features the horns from Earth Wind and Fire, and is really a Genesis song, so there.

Betty Carter in 1990

There’s been a ferocious email debate going on among some of my friends this week regarding Betty Carter.

Is she the greatest jazz singer ever, or a warbling charlatan who destroyed every song she touched? 

With Betty, there seems to be no middle ground. Either you love her, or you hate her.

This is Betty Carter and her trio, playing one of her own songs, “Dropping Things“… with a nice nod to Art Blakey at the end…

Betty Carter (vocal)
Marc Carey (piano)
Dwayne Burno (bass)
Gregory Hutchinson (drums)

Lisbon, Portgual – October 1990, at the Galp Jazz Festival

Cuong Vu

Cuong Vu Trio playing “Vina’s Lullaby

Cuong Vu – trumpet
Stomu Takeishi – bass
Ted Poor – drums

Live at Berklee College of Music (date unknown)

Sonny Rollins in London

Sonny Rollins Quintet
Barbican, London
20th November 2010

Sonny Rollins, tenor saxophone; Bob Cranshaw, bass; Kobie Watkins, drums; Russell Malone, guitar; Sammy Figueroa, percussion

Age has not wearied Sonny Rollins, but it has reduced his gait to a slow, cautious waddle. Draped in a generous red silk shirt, crowned with a halo of grey frizz that recalled Arthur Rubenstein, Sonny Rollins emerged from behind a black curtain and swayed his way slowly to the front of the stage and the Barbican Theatre gave the man and his band a warm, heartfelt welcome.

Here, in front of us, stood a true mythic figure of music, one of the last men left standing from that famous generation of American musicians who defined modern jazz.  And this guy was going to play. For us. The expectation in the room was almost overwhelming.

Sonny Rollins – North Sea Jazz Festival, July 2010 – Evert-Jan (Creative Commons)

Despite the rapturous ovation that greeted the band, the gig started slowly. The quintet, slightly adrift on the wide Barbican stage, searched in vain for its mojo.  The opening tune, an 8-bar two chord vamp, had all the charm of a raucous soundcheck, and it took fully three songs, (half an hour), for the engineers to find a proper balance, allowing Bob Cranshaw’s bass and Russell Malone’s guitar to finally emerge from the murk.

Riding over the top of the band was Mr Rollin’s enormous, vocalised tenor saxophone. Sonny Rollins may no longer be able to outrun an advancing wall of lava, but his sound is still volcanic: broad, rough-hewn, scratchy as scoria.

His solos reminded me of a saxophone-playing friend of mine, who once commented to me “The best thing about Sonny Rollins is he doesn’t have any licks you can copy.” Even if the first third of the concert lacked inspiration, you got the impression that Rollins and his collaborators never gave up searching, grasping for the moment when everything would come together.

The “click” finally happened on the fourth tune: an unnamed funk groove, Russell Malone laying out an unexpected line worthy of a James Brown rhythm section. Watkin and Cranshaw obliged by accelerating the tempo ever-so-slightly, and finally the taper was lit.

Rollins waddled along the line of footlights, pouring out notes, quoting show-tunes and Pop Goes the Weasel, stopping in front of audience members to dedicate a phrase or two to each, before moving on, his saxophone swaying like a cradle in the storm, waiting for the bough to break. The gig was on.

Sonny Rollins – New York, September 2010 – Mr Mystery (Creative Commons)

As the evening progressed, the man’s purpose become clear – he was here to play music, and to play as much music as he could.  Only a musician of Rollins’ stature could flick off a rendition of Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood without ever bothering to play the melody. The climax came on the penultimate tune: a swinging version of Why Was I Born? where Rollins paced the width of the stage while engineering a solo of uncommon beauty.

There were some unusual choices of settings for his sidemen to take the spotlight: a slow, early-set ballad was the moment for Mr Rollins to trade fours with Sammy Figueroa’s congas, while the 3/4 tempo of Some Day I’ll Find You provided the frame for Kobie Watkins to let loose on drums. Russell Malone’s guitar was consistently tasteful, and occasionally audacious – he even permitted himself an extended reconstruction of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme on a middle chorus.

The gig closed with a few words of wisdom from the man himself, who recalled with humility his younger days gigging in London with Ronnie Scott and friends.  The band stretched out for a rollicking calypso finale on Don’t Stop the Carnival, and the groove bounced in our heads all the way home along the Northern Line and through the foggy streets of Islington.

This was a gig that, if only momentarily transcendant, was all the more special for those rare, precious minutes when Sonny Rollins – stately, majestic and deliberate in his ninth decade – made the stage positively glow.

Image: Evert-Jan (Creative Commons)

EDIT: 22/11/2010 Corrected name of guitarist (Russell Malone) and spelling of Sammy Figueroa

Random Act of Culture

I rather thought that this was a fabulous idea: a “flash mob” choir of 650, singing the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah in Macy’s department store in Philadelphia, surprising the early Christmas shoppers.

They were accompanied by the shop’s pipe organ (only in America), which is apparently the largest pipe organ in the world (also, only in America).

It’d be great to do something like this in Paris… perhaps in Printemps or the Les Halles shopping centre?

Bannerman’s Dusty Dream Hole…

It’s exciting to hear new music from a close musical collaborator and friend – Richie Setford was the éminence grise and main creative force behind one million dollars, a band to which my life was tied for a big chunk part of the last decade.

Now Richie has released his first full album as a solo artist: The Dusty Dream Hole is released under his nom de scène Bannerman. Sonically, the departure from our one million dollars adventure couldn’t be more dramatic:

The offspring of several years gestation, The Dusty Dream Hole could be described as broadly cinematic… the album encompasses lilting ballads and sharp-edged, distorted dreamscapes that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy: from the headlong jangle of My Quarantine to the glistening lounge-pop that adorns Caverns.

Richie’s musical interests and songwriting have always stretched a long way beyond the funk and soul of the one million dollars project. I was lucky enough to work with him in some smaller settings – both gigs and in various bedroom and lounge jam sessions – where Richie’s gift for melody and gently twisted song-stories could be taken outside what could be interpreted by an 11-piece groove band. In some important ways, The Dusty Dream Hole sounds to me like the logical outflow of those explorations.

The textures that fill Dream Hole reflect for me the years Richie has spent in the studio with various bands . Like a population of goblins poking their impudent heads out of hollow logs, the album is replete with chunky guitars, strings, folk harmonies, horns and stripped-back drums.

Most pleasingly, and perhaps for the first time, we get to hear Richie’s full range as a vocalist – his Tom Waits growl on Deep in the Forest is quite arresting.

Of course, my thoughts on Bannerman can never be objective. I know the musicians involved too well and –  to some limited extent – I heard the origins of this music as it took shape in flats in Western Springs and Kingsland in mid-noughties Auckland. I hope however that this album gets out to a wider audience – not just because I count Richie as a friend, but because his musical vision deserves to be shared.

The Dusty Dream Hole can be purchased online (digital and CD) at, and free download samples are available on bandcamp.

Ants in their pants

In a previous life I lived for a few years in England. During that period I participated in the extraordinary project that called The Original Rabbit Foot Spasm Band. Some might consider this an obscure claim to fame: however it has been scientifically proven that on days when US Air Force cargo jets are not taking off from RAF Brize Norton, the ORFSB is in fact the loudest human-produced noise in Oxfordshire.

Of course, it took my departure from the UK for the guys to really find success, and these days they play regularly outside their native county, including London’s 100 Club, the Glastonbury Festival, and pubs in the less smelly parts of Berkshire. Earlier in the year they even managed to find enough money for fuel to drive down the A40 to Cheltenham for the annual Jazz Festival:

Their first album, Gin and Sympathy, is a good introduction to the band’s music, and certainly offers 350% more fun for five quid than you can get on Park End Street on a Friday night.

Stylistically, the Rabbits plant one foot firmly in the traditions of pre-war jazz. (The other foot is firmly pushing through the crowd at the bar to order another pint). Semi-autobiographical originals (Booze Cruise and Nappy Head Rag) sit alongside classics like The Saints and I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire, as well as a Sheik of Araby who seems singularly proud of his lack of underwear.

And yet there is a serious project behind the band’s exuberant, devil-may-care stage persona. This band shows that jazz played in the old style can be not only be fun, but actually attract young audience in venues normally reserved for rock acts. I am reliably informed that at their gig at The Cellar in Oxford on Friday night, the queue to get in stretched well out the door.

The band’s singer and pianist, Stuart MacBeth is involved in an advisory capacity at the British National Jazz Archive, and it is his deep knowledge and enthusiasm for the music and its history that offers authenticity to what might otherwise be perceived as a novelty act.

Despite the reverence for tradition, the Original Foot Spasm Band are a thoroughly modern, networked outfit. You can pick up a digital copy of Gin and Sympathy on Bandcamp (for just 5 pounds), and follow the band on Twitter and Facebook.