LJN writers’ and friends’ jazz highlights of 2019

We asked our writers and friends to each submit one Jazz Highlight of 2019. Here are the results: Rob Adams: Pianist Euan Stevenson and saxophonist Konrad Wiszniewski (aka New Focus) exploring The Classical Connection at Jazz at St James in Leith was special and not just because I fixed the gig and am part of the Jazz at St James team. The music is masterly – Mozart improvising on Take the A Train, Erik Satie imbuing Kind of Blue with soulful minimalism – and played with conviction. The chat’s also superbly well-informed and entertaining, as the spontaneous standing ovation confirmed. John Arnett: Mine is a gig that features nobody famous, costs nothing, guarantees a good time and happens every Monday night at the Fat Cat and Canary in Norwich. It boasts an excellent house band led by ubiquitous local guitar maestro Lee Vasey and a changing cast of enthusiastic soloists of all ages, male and female. The atmosphere is friendly, the standards high but inclusive. It all seems to happen organically, with minimal fuss. In short, it reminds you what music is for.

Yazz Ahmed, Helena Kay, Tori Freestone in Interchange. Cheltenham 2018. Photo by John Watson / jazzcamera.co.uk

Issie Barratt: Recording INTERCHANGE’s enchanting debut album Donna’s Secret for Fuzzy Moon Records, with 14 incredible musicians (Brigitte Beraha, Chelsea Carmichael, Alyson Cawley, Nikki Iles, Carol Jarvis, Laura Jurd, Helena Kay, Jas Kayser, Katie Patterson, Charlie Pyne, Jessica Radcliffe, Zoe Rahman , Shirley Smart, Karen Street & Rosie Turton), producer Olga Fitzroy & engineer Jez Murphy, featuring commissions by me, Brigitte Beraha, Tori Freestone, Carol Jarvis, Cassie Kinoshi, Nikki Iles, Shirley Smart & Karen Street, then mixing/mastering with Gerry O’Riordan @The Soundhouse. Alison Bentley: At last, a chance to hear US singer Vanessa Rubin in the UK at The Pheasantry, with her gorgeous voice, intriguing phrasing and intelligent delivery. It’s been a great opportunity to revisit her excellent back catalogue too. Dan Bergsagel: The triumphant rise of the large format ensemble, with composers and arrangers presenting projects long in gestation and producing some impactful and visceral performances as Big Bands, primarily in the literal sense. In 2019 I enjoyed new recordings and intense sets from Patchwork Jazz Orchestra, Aaron Novik’s Frowny Frown, Miggy’s Augmented Orchestra, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society and the Mingus Big Band. Brian Blain: Out of many fine sets heard throughout the year vote must go to Mike Westbrook’s Uncommon Orchestra visit to Ronnie Scott’s in February. Maybe it sprawled a bit but for breadth of vision and beauty of melody there is still no one to touch this still creative leviathan of English music. John Blandford (member of Cambridge Jazz Festival management committee): 2019’s Cambridge Jazz Festival contained, I thought, the strongest programme yet. The 50+ events featured Jan Garbarek, Yazz Ahmed, Steve Swallow, Camilla George, Marius Neset and Julia Hülsmann among others, in venues ranging from concert halls to pubs and clubs. There are inevitable financial and resource constraints in running CJF (there are no salaried staff), but it is gratifying that in five years it has become an established part of the festival circuit. Lauren Bush: The reinstatement of Jazz at the Oxford in Kentish Town started at about this time last year. Over the year, they have hosted jazz every Monday night, featuring some of London’s most well-recognised musicians, like Jim Mullen, and some up-and-coming names like Freddie Gavita and Helena Kay. A great place to hear proper jazz for a reasonable price – this place is always brimming with great musicians and real die-hard fans. Head over to see what all the fuss is about!

Joel Ross. Publicity Photo

Martin Chilton: In 2007, 10-year-old Joel Ross bristled at the suggestion he learned to play the vibraphone. “I don’t know what it is. I don’t want to do this,” he said. He gave it a go, grafting to become a master of an unfashionable instrument. Jazz needs that sort of commitment to excellence. A highlight of 2019 was seeing Ross, the son of Chicago police officers, release his brilliant debut album (KingMaker, Blue Note) and receive the acclaim that his dedication deserved. Mike Collins: I once heard Stan Sulzmann describe playing with American pianist Mark Copland as like walking on air.  A rewarding thread of my 2019 has been diving deeper into this quiet master’s catalogue, an exploration triggered by happenstance when he was a late substitution for an indisposed Fred Hersch at Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Copland’s sublime solo set (reviewed here) brought to mind Sulzmann’s accolade. His solo release Gary was out then, and a  beautiful trio album And I Love Her followed. AJ Dehany: I sat in on Pascal Schumacher recording his forthcoming SOLO+ album for vibraphone and electronics over four days at the Opderschmelz cultural centre in Dudelange on the border of Luxembourg and France. It’s instrumental music with a hypnotic appeal, in no genre, not jazz or classical, not pop or film. The pieces build with a complex interlocking of simpler parts which bind together in intricate patterns with subtle sophistications through the interaction of sound and production. Tony Dudley-Evans (TDE Promotions and Cheltenham Jazz Festival): I was very proud to be presenting at Cheltenham Jazz Festival Rachel Musson’s It Went This Way originally commissioned for the Surge In Spring Festival in 2018. I was also delighted to hear a third performance at Café Oto in London. At the latter with extended time the two saxophonists Xhosa Cole and Lee Griffiths were able to stretch out in spectacular fashion.

Live painting by Gina Southgate of SEED Ensemble in Cambridge. Phone snap by John Arnett

David Gower (Cambridge Modern Jazz): Seed Ensemble at Marsden Jazz Festival, October 2019. Wow! A blast of searing ensemble power-play the likes of which I just hadn’t encountered before. Ten superb musicians expertly led from the front by Cassie Kinoshie (alto) and superb soloing from Theon Cross (tuba), Shirley Tetteh (guitar) and Chelsea Carmichael (tenor). Music with totally relevant comment on British culture and diversity issues then and now. Jazz with heft in all departments. Patrick Hadfield: Mike Westbrook’s Uncommon Orchestra, Ronnie Scott’s, 12 February 2019. Sold out weeks in advance, the temptation to see Mike Westbrook’s Uncommon Orchestra proved too much. I succumbed. It as a wonderful, glorious night. Ronnie Scott’s was packed with an audience there for the music. The band overflowed from the stage. They sounded great. A remarkable evening, full of highs: exciting music that lifted and soared. Not just the highlight of the year, but probably the decade too.

Harold Mabern and Martin Hummel. Picture supplied

Martin Hummel (Ubuntu): I had the privilege of working with pianist Harold Mabern. We recorded a live album in London with saxophonist Eric Alexander and planned to do another tour/album in 2018. However, Harold’s health became an issue. In May 2019, Harold performed at Ronnie Scott’s, knowing it would be his last time in London. Yet The Iron Man was fearless. Harold died on 19 September 2019. His thunderous playing and his engaging stories will live forever. We will always remember you, Mabes… Stephen Hyde (Herts Jazz): Art Themen/Tom Ridout Quintet, Herts Jazz 1 December 2019 – Art had just celebrated his 80th birthday and was partnered for this gig with Tom, almost 60 years his junior. Both were on top form. Having completed one of his trademark explosive and idiosyncratic solos, Art walked to the side of the stage as Tom took up the challenge with aplomb. Art’s face was beaming as he watched next to me. “You really enjoy playing with these young guys, don’t you?” I asked. “I do,” said Art. “I really do.”

Brass for Africa. Phone pic by Mary James

Mary James: My moment of 2019 was Brass For Africa, Cheltenham Town Hall, 13 July 2019: When Brass for Africa entered the rear of the Town Hall in riotous full blast, people smiled and unreservedly whooped at the warmth of the sound, suddenly we were in Africa! We had come to hear Wynton Marsalis but our hearts were stolen by the young people, whose stories made us weep but whose resilience and quiet pride in overcoming huge physical and mental disadvantages was unforgettable. And they can forever say “We played with Wynton Marsalis”. Christian Kellersmann (BMG): My jazz-highlight happened already in the second week of 2019: the Art Blakey centennial celebration at Lincoln Center, which was organsised by Wynton Marsalis. It was so touching how original Jazz Messengers-members like Steve Turre, Randy Brecker, Wynton & Branford Marsalis, Terrance Blanchard, Donald Harrison were reflecting and talking about their experiences with Art Blakey. Oral-history at his best! Paul Kelly (Chair, Swanage Jazz Festival): Despite seeing many excellent gigs, my highlight must be keeping Swanage Jazz Festival alive. We started late with scant resources and a local team who had never run a festival before. We managed to put on a creditable programme of 40 bands, provide a platform for many excellent ‘local’ bands and bring in some top quality ‘names’ like Hexagonal, Sara Dowling and Gilad Atzmon. And we broke even. Plans for an enhanced Swanage 2020 will be announced soon. Richard Lee: So, having raved about Cécile McLorin Salvant at Jazz Sous Les Pommiers in Coutances, I insisted my wife would be blown away if we booked the Barbican date in November. “Yeh, OK, whatev’s”. I rave too much… As Sullivan Fortner’s sure-footed chords set off Salvant’s impish glance in our direction, both of them dancing off Cy Coleman’s lyrics, my wife turned to me with the biggest wide-eyed “Wow!” ever. The evening proceeded upwards… Gods play among us. Nick Lewis, Ronnie Scott’s . Jacob Collier’s TinyDesk Concert. 15 minutes, 3 original songs of pure beauty, soul and impeccable craftsmanship. A 5-piece band on top of its game, gorgeous harmonies courtesy of Becca Stevens and Portuguese musician Maro blending perfectly with Jacob’s own voice and wizardry around multiple instruments. A masterful rhythm section adept at changing style throughout. I had to go and listen again multiple times. I would urge people to do the same. Fiona Mactaggart: July’s Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival showcased Scotland’s flourishing jazz scene, sprinkled with some happening music from further afield. The former included notable up-and-comers tenor saxman Michael Butcher, bassist Brodie Jarvie and drummer Graham Costello, also evolved guitarist Haftor Medboe’s duo with Swedish pianist Jacob Karlson and the sumptuously sounding Trio Magico. Stand-out overseas bands of Chilean saxophonist Melissa Aldana, American lap guitarist Roosevelt Collier and Sardinian saxophonist Enzo Favata ensured this festival was, as ever, a full-on multi-cultural feast. Rob Mallows: Morten Schantz Godspeed, Pizza Express, Soho, 16 October. I have never felt so enthused, astounded, entranced and joyously happy at a gig as I did at this show by the Danish keyboardist, playing with Josh Arcoleo and the machine-gun-fast Anton Eger. Tune after tune combining melodic beauty with brute force and playing of real intensity, this show had everything. I sat – entranced – just three feet away from one of the best keyboard displays I’ve ever seen. Easily in my top five gigs of all time.
Jane Mann: On a hot summer afternoon, holidaymakers and locals packed into Torquay Town Hall to hear Mike Westbrook and his splendid 22-piece The Uncommon Orchestra (see video above). The band were on top form, with special guests: endlessly inventive Matthew Bourne, playing piano barefoot, Pete Whyman giving nightingales a run for their money on clarinet and magnificent vocalist Martine Waltier reducing some of the band themselves to tears with Westbrook’s beautiful arrangement of Strayhorn’s I Want Something To Live For. Wonderful. Mark McKergow: Introducing Gregory Porter, Keyon Harrold, Giacomo Smith, James Pearson and many more on the Cheltenham Jazz Festival jam session stage at 3.30am to tear up Bobby Timmons’ Moanin’ (with Jon Hendricks’ lyrics) in front of what the Guardian review described (correctly) as a ‘worse for wear’ crowd, while the hotel staff laid up for breakfast in the background. Matt Pannell: A chilly Monday night and you weren’t sure whether to bother turning out, but then out of nowhere you’re blind-sided by an electrifying band. These four played the music of Benny Golson and Larry Goldings with oily precision and explosive energy. If you’ve ever been standing in a field and seen lightning strike the ground thirty feet away – so close you can smell it – you’re left asking the same thing: where did that just come from? Adrian Pallant: It was heart-warming to discover, then review, Rymden’s January release, Reflections & Odysseys. A debut album, yes – but from a trio who, individually, needed no introduction: Bugge Wesselftoft, and e.s.t.’s Dan Berglund and Magnus Öström. Their captivating, new sound demonstrated jazz’s ability to evolve; and, most poignantly, to transform darkness into light, a decade after Esbjörn Svensson tragically left us. Generations of musicians create magical impressions which become indelibly printed on our hearts – and I, for one, am eternally grateful. Michael Rüsenberg (jazzcity.de): I choose Stepping Back, Jumping In, the fifth album by Laura Jurd. I currently prepare a radio show on her, its title reflects the first and foremost impact of the album to me: “jazz is composition“. Yes, there is improvisation, but her talent to sketch an amalgam from diverse sources, from string quartet to microtonality and rock´n´roll seems to be unmatched this year. Yet shes only one out of five composers, their coherence is equally striking.

Matthias Schubert. Photo credit : Friedhelm Fett

Constantin Sieg (Bad Hersfeld, Germany.) This summer, we began our series of non-commercial concerts called “Jazz im Torhaus” in Bad Hersfeld (a really small town near the former border with the GDR), i.e. living room-concerts. My jazz event of the year happened there: German saxophonist Matthias Schubert playing solo, absolutely stunning. The solo concert of guitar player Andreas Willers was exceptional as well, but our photographer was on vacation then. We will do a recording of Matthias there in spring. Peter Slavid: Two jazz festivals. I’ve always thought that the UK was a bit short of good jazz festivals. Fortunately this year saw the revived Bath Jazz Weekend, a co-operative venture between artists and organisers. And we also heard that the Gateshead Jazz Festival would be back in 2020. And both festivals have a tradition of putting on a full range of jazz including some of the more interesting and experimental music as well as the more popular styles.

Three Nations: BuJazzO, NJJO and NYJO. Photo Nigel Tully

Nigel Tully (Exec Chair NYJO): 75 musicians from the BuJazzO (Germany), the Netherlands (NJJO) and the UK (NYJO) playing a blistering concert showing that despite Brexit young jazz musicians from 3 nations can play great music together. The penultimate gig of a seven-date tour of Germany, Holland and the UK followed four days of rehearsal in the Heek conservatoire in Germany. Dutch musicians are in orange, UK in blue & German in black; legendary trombonist Jiggs Wigham conducts with Mark Armstrong & Johannes Plomp supporting. Sebastian Scotney: I have loved moments when there seems to be a catalyst about the occasion that spurs on players to attain heights and flights of the imagination that one has never heard them reach before. So I’m thinking of Helen Sung, with her parents in the room, in Christine Jensen’s invitee New York Quartet in Montreal, and perhaps above all Nigel Price inspired by playing alongside Jim Mullen in Guitarmageddon at Ronnie Scott’s. Jon Turney: Anouar Brahem at the National Concert Hall in Dublin. A completely delightful evening from a peerless quartet with Dave Holland, Nasheet Waits and Django Bates. Fascinating to hear Holland’s rapport with Brahem again after 20 years, and Django adapting his playing to serve this music. One of those unlikely-to-be-repeated line-ups that just worked, memorably well. Peter Vacher: 2019 again confirmed the quality of our locally-nurtured jazz musicians, what with the superb Mark Nightingale Big Band at Dorking, performing his special commission to celebrate the venue’s 25th anniversary, the exceptional Quentin Collins sextet at Dean Street and a mesmerizing gig by Nigel Price and Vasilis Xenopoulos at, yes, Pinner Synagogue. That said, my standout performance for the year was that by the rather smaller scale but insistently brilliant Kenny Barron Trio at Ronnie Scott’s in August. A quiet master-class in creativity. John L Walters: I discovered jazz by listening to my transistor radio on headphones: the AFN (American Forces Network, on which I first heard Bitches Brew) and BBC. Then came DAB and Jazz FM. This year, I’ve become hooked on the virtually conversation-free French digital station FIP autour du jazz. Whatever time of day you listen, there’s the opportunity to re-discover a timeless classic or to become entranced by a new artist. Radio can still deliver the sound of surprise.

Charles Tolliver at Pancevo, Serbia. Photo © John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk

John Watson: Charles Tolliver’s All Stars, Charles Lloyd, the Mingus Big Band, Paolo Fresu’s new trio, Stanley Clarke, Dave Holland with Chris Potter and Zakir Hussain, Dianne Reeves . . . unforgettable music. Serbia has festivals (Belgrade in late October; Pancevo a few days later, plus a festival in the city of Nis in August) which presented programmes in 2019 packed with superstars of jazz, plus a host of rising stars. Yet, compared with much of Western Europe, Serbia is is a relatively poor country. The secret: a combination of state subsidy and brilliant programme management. Oliver Weindling (Vortex) A weekend of music to celebrate David Mossman, the founder of the Vortex, on 25 and 26 January 2019 showed how positive his impact has been on so many (including as family and friends) over 30 years. His trust and encouragement of musicians was shown by the many who joined in over the 2 days – too many to mention – and climaxed with Norma Winstone together with Huw Warren and John Parricelli in a performance which epitomised a legacy that we try and continue into the future. Kate Williams: UK tour for album Finding Home by Kate Williams’ Four Plus Three meets Georgia Mancio. It was great to be able to play Finding Home over several dates, but it’s now hard not to see everything through a lens tinted by the current political climate. Creating a tour for an 8/9-piece band was a challenging task, but co-leading with Georgia really helped, as did the support from the other musicians, promoters and so many from all across the jazz scene. Whilst that same spirit of collaboration and camaraderie exists, there is hope!

Alan Wilkinson and Douglas Benford. Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. © 2019. All Rights Reserved

Geoff Winston: I loved the opening music event we commissioned for our exhibition, BOTH AND in Dalston,a 19-minute improvised set by Alan Wilkinson (bass clarinet) and Douglas Benford (melodica), and their short encore with Wilkinson switching to clarinet. Wilkinson stretched the bass clarinet in oblique and adventurous ways, with something akin to Eric Dolphy’s explorations, while Benford added accordion-like nuances to the sound field. The clari-melodica set followed in the same vein. Such refreshing artistry. All captured on Soundcloud: Part 1 and Part 2.

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