Stéphane Belmondo/Kirk Lightsey Quintet
(Tube’s, Graz (Austria). 10 March 2022 (Belmondo/Lightsey) and 11 March 2022 (Keïta/Brönnimann/Niggli ). Live Reviews by Oliver Weindling)
Tube’s is a new venue in Graz in the south-eastern corner of Austria. The capital of Steiermark is an important city for culture in general with an amazing Kunsthaus. It is also a lively centre for jazz, being home to the oldest jazz course in Europe.
The club is now hoping for third time lucky, its first two attempts at opening since 2020 having been stymied by various Covid lockdowns in Austria. So I was very pleased to be able to hear the Stéphane Belmondo/Kirk Lightsey Quintet and, on the following night, the trio of Keïta/Brönnimann/Niggli.
The club is the brainchild of Sigi Feigl, a jazz dynamo and saxophonist who also runs the jazz course at the university along with a big band; and trombonist Luis Bonilla, also a professor there, whose pedigree includes a c.v. with Lester Bowie and more. Nicely appointed with excellent comfort for about 60 and good quality PA system, they are planning on 3-night residencies with around 12-15 gigs a month. Despite clubs being the lifeblood of jazz, where bands can develop their skills and really interact with their audiences, they have tended to suffer over recent years at the expense of festivals all around Europe, which too often tend to focus upon special projects which are not so easy to tour economically. But here, with musicians holding the reins, there is an excellent system of sympathetic interaction with the musicians and a quality control.
Stéphane Belmondo and Kirk Lightsey know each other well from Paris, and also from both having worked with Chet Baker. The behind-the-scenes motivator is band member trombonist Paul Zauner and the rest of the rhythm section is made up of two regulars of such bands, Wolfram Derschmidt on bass and Dusan Novakov on drums. Special guest was Klemens Pliem on saxophone and flute. In a programme which veered between standards as in ‘In Your Own Sweet Way’ by Brubeck and Wayne Shorter’s ‘Fe Fi Fo Fum’, there were also originals by Lightsey and Belmondo.
Lightsey himself, now 85, is a wonder. Coming out of a school of piano players from Detroit, which included Barry Harris (his original mentor), Alice Coltrane and Tommy Flanagan, jazz history seems to come out from every pore. Full of boyish cheeky imagination he seems to be in a special place. Playful and broad-reaching, he communicates this through to the rest of the band and the audience for a scintillating evening, such that they all played with joie de vivre. Belmondo himself is a real titan.
The trio of Aly Keïta on balafon, Jan Galega Brönnimann on bass clarinets and saxophone, and Lucas Niggli on drums played at the Vortex during our Intakt festival in 2017. There is a lot of history which they all bring out, with Keïta from Ivory Coast, while Niggli and Brönniman were both born in Cameroon. Their ability to hop around African styles is uplifting, with the balafon being especially important as the anchor around which the others can play. Underpinned by the extended kit of Niggli, Brönniman mainly played bass clarinet, though also went even lower in tone with a contrabass clarinet and, albeit briefly, in the other direction with a soprano sax.
A great thing about the bass clarinet is that it can be lyrical for solos but can also pound out bass lines. They run across the whole continent for influences to create something that is eminently danceable. Unfortunately though, still not possible given Covid restrictions in Austria. There is something reminiscent for me of two of ‘our own’ bands in London – Vula Viel, with Bex Burch’s gyil, and Fofoulah, with a great groove set by the West African inflected drumming, in this case by Dave Smith. All leave one’s feet tapping and waiting for a chance for us to get dancing everywhere.
(He will also be at at the Inntöne Piano Festival in Austria from 3-5 June)