Michael Janisch Band
(Eastside Jazz Club, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. 14 March 2023. Review and photos by John Watson)
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Concerts by touring American bands have been rather thin on the ground in recent times in Birmingham, though thankfully the city is blessed with a very active live scene featuring some of the UK’s finest musicians.
So it was particularly pleasing that the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire was able to arrange for bassist Michael Janisch’s new US band to appear as part of a short European tour – and what a stupendous performance they gave.
The tour had opened at the Crane Lane Theatre in Cork, Ireland, on 13 March, before coming to the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire’s Eastside Jazz Club the following night, Ronnie Scott’s in London on 15 March, and then the Bimhuis in Amsterdam on 16 March. After that they are due to record an album.
Janisch has, of course, led some excellent bands in the past, and featured as a sideman with many more. His latest quartet is truly exceptional: tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III, the brilliant drummer Eric Harland, and rising-star pianist James Francies.
US-born Janisch has long been based in London, and runs his Whirlwind Recordings label in this country. His most recent album, Worlds Collide, included two Royal Birmingham Conservatoire tutors in the personnel: saxophonist John O’Gallagher and drummer Andrew Bain. And his earlier disc Purpose Built featured Walter Smith III.
Harland’s brilliant drumming has featured with a host of groups led by jazz legends, including Charles Lloyd, Joshua Redman and Terence Blanchard, though I first heard him in concert with the quartet of McCoy Tyner.
James Francies, age 28, is fast building a reputation as a potential major piano star of the future. Houston-born, he moved to New York to develop his career, and now has two albums as a leader released on Blue Note: Flight, and Purest Form. His sideman credentials include Pat Metheny’s 2021 album Side-Eye NYC. Smith’s expressive tenor work has been heard with trumpeters Ambrose Akinmusire and Christian Scott, as well as Harland’s own group Voyager.
Just how powerfully creative Francies has become was demonstrated right from the start of the concert, a Janisch composition titled “The DJ I Knew”. The leader had opened on the bass guitar, with a spacious solo improvisation of arpeggios, hammer-ons and harmonics. But when the piece gathered pace, both Francies and saxophonist Smith created wonderful waves of sound over a driving pulse from Janisch and Harland.
There were inspired moments, too, on other imaginative Janisch compositions, including “Pop”, “Shumshi” and “Restart”, for which he switched to double bass.
But the unquestionable highlight of the concert was an absolutely storming version of Wayne Shorter’s classic “JuJu”, with Smith delivering a furiously-energised solo that seemed to be about to burst into flames with passion. The choice of this 6/4 composition as a tribute to the recently deceased Shorter was particularly interesting, as so many of his finest works are in triple time signatures: “Footprints”, “Night Dreamer”, “Wild Flower” and “Miyako”, for example.
Driven by Harland’s dynamic and always perfectly paced drumming, the Janisch band created a performance that would surely have delighted Wayne.