Live review

ECM at 50 Celebration Concerts at the Royal Academy of Music

RAM concerts: ECM at 50
(Susie Sainsbury Theatre, RAM, 30 and 31 January 2020. Review by Sebastian Scotney – Thursday; Sam Norris – Friday first half)

The Royal Academy’s celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the ECM label happened over two nights. Our coverage is of the first night, and the first half of the second night – the second half consisted of previously unperformed works by Kenny Wheeler from his archive which resides at RAM.

L-R: Kit Downes, Iain Ballamy, Craig Taborn, Norma Winstone, Anders Jormin, Evan Parker. Photo courtesy of Nick Smart

Sebastian writes:

The first night of the Royal Academy of Music’s celebration of the ECM label at 50 presented a very cleverly constructed and well-balanced programme. It is all too easy to keep in mind a single clichéd and one-dimensional perspective of what ECM does. This two-part concert went way beyond that and was all the more satisfying for it. The two halves of the programme juxtaposed and contrasted the music of Swedish bassist Anders Jormin and that American pianist Craig Taborn. These two muscians’ aesthetics really are as different as, say, those of Messiaen and Xenakis, or of De Chirico and Anselm Kiefer.

Both musicians had been working with RAM students during the week, and preparing a programme to perform with them. And it was remarkable to see how the students had found their way so confidently into each of these very different idioms.

The set directed by Anders Jormin concentrated on the 2012 album Ad Lucem (towards the light). When the album first appeared, JazzTimes’ reviewer (understandably!) couldn’t resist making the following joke: “With its utterly distinctive chamber sound, Anders Jormin’s Ad Lucem is a certain winner this year in the Latin jazz category – no, not the Latin jazz played by Eddie Palmieri, but the considerably rarer kind featuring lyrics in the language of Caesar.” When Jormin talked about the music between the numbers at the concert, he drew attention to this fact, and he has also written elsewhere that the Latin texts – which were sung carefully, reverentially, beautifully by two harmonizing vocalists – lead the listener to a “sense of eternity and mystery”. His own contribution is to give a wonderfully strong bass presence. But there are departures too: he can makes the bass sound like an erhu, or even imitate a seagull. This is beautiful music with an economy of expression, elegance and natural flow.

Just as the RAM students in the first half found their way convincingly into a “European” sensitivity, the students in the second band took on Craig Taborn’s aesthetic and seemed to live it to the full. Taborn’s is unsettled, disquieting, urgent music, where pulse and pace are disrupted. The expectation is that individual interventions are going to steer the music to a different place. Taborn’s own playing both at the Rhodes and grand piano always gives the sense that every detail needs to be listened to. The final intensity build was overwhelming and brought the concert to a stupendous, powerful and rewarding close.

Sam Norris writes:

ENEMY, the trio formed of award-winning British pianist Kit Downes, in-demand drummer James Maddren and Swedish bass wizard Petter Eldh, had the support slot on Friday evening. Their set, performed to a packed-out Susie Sainsbury theatre, came directly before a concert by the RAM Big Band featuring three eminent figures: Stan Sulzmann and Evan Parker and vocalist Norma Winstone. The pressure didn’t show.

Kit Downes had been working with RAM students for the last couple of months, rehearsing ENEMY’s deeply complex music with an augmented line-up. The set started, though, with Fiend, an edge-of-the-seat trio piece which established themes that were to continue throughout the rest of the gig; urgent, harmonically intriguing cascades of notes from Downes, whose freewheeling style had shades of Keith Jarrett, Lennie Tristano and Craig Taborn; an astounding command of texture and dynamics from all three members of the trio; and wonky, mind-bending grooves, which were never so esoteric as to be undanceable.

The subsequent addition of 11 RAM students, organised into a string quartet plus arco double bass, a four-piece horn section and two percussionists, allowed ENEMY to present their musical vision on a larger, semi-orchestral scale. The pizzicato groove which started Eldh’s Children With Torches complemented Downes’s often pointillistic comping style, the string group (led by violinist Roberts Balanas) doing an admirable job of sitting within the trio texture without overwhelming it. Furthermore, the contributions of jazz percussionists Justin Tambini and Luke Bainbridge throughout the same tune lent extra rhythmic and textural depth to the written passages, while providing a firm basis for Maddren’s subtle, masterfully developed polyrhythmic explorations.

A woodwind section of two tenor saxes, a clarinet and a bass clarinet furthered the orchestral vibe, the four reeds blending well with the band and bringing some highly sophisticated writing to life with ease. The improvising was equally impressive; tenorist Matt Cook took a melodic, Wayne Shorter-ish blow on Eldh’s Sandilands, contrasting well with its dense, atonal underpinnings, and Harry Greene used the same instrument in a slightly boppier, big-toned fashion during the bassist’s faux-naif Prospect of K. Eligible for special praise are Jonny Ford and Kyran Matthews who, despite spending most of the gig on their second instruments (clarinet and bass clarinet respectively), were integral to realising the contemporary classical aesthetic that composers Downes and Eldh were clearly striving for, particularly during the former’s Shostakovich-esque Politix.

Although extensive, the writing never obstructed the creative whims of Downes and his ENEMY colleagues; Sandilands saw a winding, chromatic solo from the pianist, his trademark relaxed time feel allowing him to float unhurriedly over some very intricate rhythmic structures. Maddren was also left ample space to stretch out, his playing similarly unencumbered by the metric madness and providing scope for plenty of spontaneous group interplay. Bassist and primary composer Eldh was an unwavering anchor all night but opened the final tune, Prospect of K, with a powerful, athletic solo, his infectious energy spurring the band on to produce a fiery reading of his anthemic composition.

This was a gig which struck a good balance between written and improvised material and was a successful experiment in re-imagining the trio’s tunes for an extended line-up of RAM talent. One might think that a group whose music is so detailed anyway might be muddied by the addition of so many new sounds, but on the contrary the use of a larger ensemble served to broaden ENEMY’s timbral and rhythmic palette while still allowing a strong improvisatory element to shine through. If anything, the trio were able to reach greater heights of creativity knowing that they could rely totally on the musical instincts of the students. Despite its artistic fearlessness, though, the music’s constant playfulness lent it a certain accessibility, and its wide pool of influences, from driving drum and bass to 20th-century classical, ensured there was something for everyone to latch onto.

Kit Downes was also awarded a Fellowship of the Royal Academy of Music during the Saturday concert.

Richard Williams has also reviewed the concerts

THURSDAY BAND LISTS

ANDERS JORMIN ENSEMBLE

Vocals Ella Hohnen-Ford, Alma Naidu

Alto Saxophone Sam Norris

Tenor Saxophone Ewan Gudgeon

Piano Harry Baker

Jacky Naylor

Bass Jasper De Roeck

Drums Kai Craig

CRAIG TABORN ENSEMBLE

Alto Saxophone: Sean Payne, Lewis Sallows

Trumpet: Laurence Wilkins

Trombone: Joel Knee

Piano: Reuben Goldmark, Noah Stoneman

Guitar: Rosie Taylor, Miles Mildrin

Bass: Seth Tackaberry, Toby Yapp

Drums: Oren McLoughlin Jack Thomas

FRIDAY  FIRST SET BAND LIST

ENEMY: Kit Downes, Petter Eldh, James Maddren

Ensemble
Violin: Roberts Balanas, Iona McDonald

Viola: Edgar Francis

Cello: Laura Peribañez Artero

Double Bass: Matthew Read

Clarinet: Jonny Ford

Bass Clarinet: Kyran Matthews

Tenor Saxophone: Matt Cook, Harry Greene

Percussion: Luke Bainbridge, Justin Tambini

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