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

Glimpses of London

Some pictures of a hot and humid  Sunday afternoon spent in London before catching the Eurostar back to Paris….

Two hours on the grass in Hyde Park with the Sunday papers!

The New Zealand War Memorial at Hyde Park Corner

Horse riders get a special high-up button to cross the traffic at Hyde Park Corner

I hadn’t visited Parliament for years. Victoria Tower at the Palace of Westminster is most impressive… !

The Clocktower and the statue of Boudica (the original British rebel) stand by Westminster Bridge

O’Spada: From Stockholm with Love

In May 2009, I remixed a track by O’Spada, and this Swedish band haven’t looked back since. They’ve now released their first album, Pay Off, a disc that is poised to furnish lounges and clubs around the world. It’s out now on Despotz.

O’Spada‘s debut album is chock-full of spiky, swaggering funk tunes, built around the in-your-face vocals of singer and principal songwriter Julia. Here’s a taste:

If I called their music “bulletproof prog-disco assembled by an unholy alliance of astromech droids and the Daleks “, then I would be guilty of using too many ridiculous metaphors, but I will have come close to describing the O’Spada sound.

The tone of the album tends towards darkness but there are bright moments. The shuffle-time Rainbow (with its ooo-wah vocals) edges towards Motown and provides a respite from the brain-freezing grooves that dominate the rest of the disc.

Most of all, O’Spada comes across as fresh, and rather unlike any other band I know. There’s a Swedish accent in the vocals, jangly rhythm guitar, irony-free slap bass, and ferocious sawtooth synthesizer licks that sound like they’re played by a dude with a Patrick Swayze haircut.

What more could you wish for?

Well, a tour maybe. O’Spada are in London in mid-June to promote the album. If you’re in town make sure you catch them before they’re Bigger than Bieber-Hur.

London city tour dates:

14 Jun Hoxton Bar And Kitchen
15 Jun Dublin Castle
17 Jun St. Pancras International
17 Jun YoYo @ Nottinghill Arts Club
18 Jun Last FM presents… @ Big Chill House
20 Jun The Luxe

Happy 80th Birthday Kenny Wheeler

Thursday 14th January was trumpeter Kenny Wheeler’s 80th birthday. John Fordham in the Grauniad offers a review of the Birthday Concert that was held this week at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

Image: Juan Carlos Hernandez

It sounds like it was a predictably wonderful evening – with a monster band assembled to pay tribute to this most modest of master musicians: including Dave Holland, Evan Parker, John Taylor, Stan Sulzmann and Norma Winstone… all players with long histories of fruitful collaboration with Wheeler.

To catch some of the atmosphere, try out these recordings of Kenny Wheeler with the Colours Jazz Orchestra, recorded in Verona, Italy in February 2006.

As far as I know, the Verona date has never been released commercially, but you can pick up the superb Nineteen Plus One (recorded with the same orchestra) if you like what you hear.

Happy Birthday K.W.!

(Edit: for those of you who don’t want to download, Yann sent me the link to Kenny Wheeler on Deezer)

Chima Anya in London Town

Here’s the next chapter in the story of the hip-hop boys from Oxford, GTA, who we’ve mentioned a few times on the blog. MC Chima Anya has now moved to London, where he’s working in a children’s hospital (remember Dr Anya is a trained medical professional by day, and rapper by night), and breaking into the London scene as a solo artist.

His new single is New Day, featuring Soweto Kinch, and produced by some bloke called Astronare, about whom I can find nothing on the web. The video looks a lot more slick and professional than the previous “home-grown” clips filmed around Oxford… you could say it’s a big step up.

Soweto Kinch (born in London but growing up near Birmingham) has a bit of an Oxford connection too. A pretty handy jazz saxophonist and rapper, he also has a degree in Modern History from Hertford College, Oxford. Now, whatever you think of jazz, hip hop or Oxbridge education, you’ve got to admit that that’s a pretty cool CV.

Anyway, if you’re in London in August, you can catch Chima Anya’s album preview gig at The Gramaphone, 60-62 Commercial Street E1, on Thursday 27th August.

Her Make Believe Band

Image: Marcus Wright

Cy Winstanley and Vanessa McGowan are two New Zealand-born musicians based in London. Their songwriting/band project is called Her Make Believe Band. They’ve been recording their first album, and the first tracks are up on MySpace.

Years ago, back in Auckland, I played in a big band with Cy and Vanessa. Part of a web of musical contacts that now forms a network that these days spans the globe. When I knew them, they were playing a lot of jazz, and wasn’t aware of their mutual love of country music.

Image: janasfotos

You hear a lot of that country sound on these few tracks, but theres are lot more too: rich string arrangements and Fender Rhodes on Lonely Soul Blues, and assured song structures that recall Paul Simon. Cy’s voice on Last Hour is quite stunning – does this remind anyone else of Mark Hollis’ classic solo album ?  If these few tracks are a guide, then the full album could be very, very good indeed.

If you’re reading this in New Zealand, Her Make Believe Band is playing some shows in Auckland in May and June. Don’t miss them.

Impish Orchestrations

The great thing about skiing holidays is that it’s almost never the skiing that is the most memorable event. So the undoubted highlight of my short break in the South Island this winter were the keas.

The kea is the world’s only alpine parrot, and apart from being some of the most intelligent birds on the planet, they also are among the most fearless, playful and impish. They will rip apart the upholstery on your snowmobile, steal french fries off your picnic table from under your nose, and then flap off noisily up the mountain to look at you sideways from the safety of a rocky outcrop.

So, in a twisted tribute to these impish inhabitants of our Southern Alps, I’ve dug up some of the most impish music I could find. The London Improvisers’ Orchestra, recorded live at the Freedom of the City Festival on May 5th 2002. Phone In is an improvisation for orchestra and mobile phones, while Fanfare for LIO is an improvised duet for orchestra and audience.


London Improvisers’ Orchestra – Phone In
London Improvisers’ Orchestra – Fanfare for LIO
From Freedom of the City 2002: Emanem 4090 [Buy]

Kea, Improvising

Nathan Haines: At Home and Abroad

Nathan Haines – Judge
From Soundkilla Sessions Volume 1: huh!/Polydor huh7 [OOP]

Nathan Haines – O Misterio
From Squire for Hire: Chillifunk 336622 [Buy]

Even the briefest survey of jazz music in New Zealand must, at some point, touch on Nathan Haines. A saxophonist and flautist by trade (and no mean singer either), Nathan has been portrayed as the nerdy kid at school who was hip before his time: listening to Coltrane, Miles Davis and Monk when his classmates were headbanging to Guns ‘n’ Roses.

His musical family (father Kevin is a bass player, and brother Joel is a respected guitarist and composer) was also probably a major factor in Nathan becoming the powerful musician he is today. Initially released just in New Zealand, Nathan’s 1995 debut Shift Left was picked up by Verve – not bad for the kid from Northcote College…

While cutting his chops playing straightahead bop, Mr Haines has always been interested in the melding of jazz and dance music. The two songs here mark steps along this road. Judge is from a 1998 album recorded live at nightclubs around Auckland (yes, this was definitely dance music). O Misterio features on 2003’s album Squire for Hire, recorded with Mark de Clive-Lowe and Phil Asher in London.

Today Nathan Haines splits his time between New Zealand and London. What is most exciting is that this guy has yet to make his definitive musical statement.