Friday 20 September 2013

Vasilis Xenopoulos & the Nigel Price Organ Trio

Vasilis Xenopoulos - Saxophone
You've got to hear this guy, they said.
He'll be worth it!

My muddied thoughts screamed STOP! The desire to knock him down after he had been built so high would be irresistible. Vasilis Xenopoulus' Jenga style rise had been remarkably solid in my mind as not only jazz fans but musicians too placed effusive bricks atop one another in a Empire State style ascension.

Nigel Price fan -
Peter Wild
Yesterday (19/09/2013) at Twickenham Jazz Club was the time for the uninitiated to choose whether to add another brick to his reputation or swing the wrecking ball in defiant mood. The club was completely packed, the crowd in generous mood despite the awkward suburban yoga when knee touches knee of complete strangers. Many had come through devotion to the leader of tonight's quartet, Nigel Price. I recognised the dashing Peter Wild, whose handsome Milk Tray Man profile stood out in the throng. All the ladies love chocolates it seems and Nigel Price, who has become the most popular performer since the Club re-launched 9 months ago.

Nigel Price
Despite his regular visits, Price keeps us on our toes, with a changing repertoire and new combinations of facial hair each time. This was a chance to hear his own work, a rich slice from his most recent recording Heads & Tails and some older still. Surprisingly nervous in speech, dexterous in motion on guitar and as always unassuming in demeanour he spent the evening bathed in blue shadows.

Paul Hutchings
Price, resplendent with new moustache
/goatee, sat astride his saloon chair like a diminutive cowboy or perhaps a wild west prospector, and he seemed to strike gold regularly. He excelled on 'All In' and drew the biggest roar for '4 on 6' which brought a hypnotic beat to our collective pulses, coursing the blood, and eventually stinging the hands in applause. His final tune of the night 'Go', recently penned, was a fine illustration of his clarity.

Matt Home - drums
The hot topic of debate on my pew was between Twickenham Jazz Club stalwarts Max Macson and Paul Hutchings who were discussing Matt Home's rimshots. Assuming this was an affliction which plagued drummers whose job requires them to permanently sit down only exposed my ignorance once again. Hutchings, an 'oily ragged' engineer and aficionado Macson put me right, giving me an analysis and dissection of rimshots on Brubeck 'Take Five'. Home was fluid throughout and his rimshots precisely hit their mark, the aforementioned '4 on 6' ringing true.

Peter Whittaker
'Stealing Time' was a favourite of the evening and none shone brighter than Peter Whittaker on organ. On the face of it an unlikely marriage, because the tune is a bossa nova based upon Kurt Weill's 'Speak Low' played by Whittaker who looks very much the stoic, sporting a side parting straighter than Gareth Bale. Whittaker flung off a perceived British reserve with his pumping carousel of notes that catapulted us into a bevvy of throbbing carnival beauties.

Kelvin Christiane -
There was an audible sigh of disappointment when Kelvin Christiane came to the stand. Not because of the man himself but because he had left his baritone sax at home. His tenor duel on 'Voyage' dispelled the dark clouds, where Christiane was deep and intense. The saxophone's path wasn't always straightforward, but challenging compositions brought out the best in Vasilis Xenopoulos in particular. He blew his cheeks out in anticipation before attempting the frantic 'Its not alright with me',

Xenopoulus is a compact and powerful player, demonstrating a rapid peppering style during the 2 sets and especially on 'Stealing Time' where he was particularly uncomplicated, yet penetrating. He lived up to my expectations and I believe those of the audience too. Students of the genre developed creeping smiles that were hard to shake off like the man sitting opposite me. Ted, a sax player for 10 years, a student of Kelvin Christiane's for 3 of those, who turned to me after a Xenopoulos solo and said to me, "Learning to play the sax is hard work you know."
....and all I could think was, where would you start?
Even though the sensible answer would be to construct your knowledge and skill block by block, in all honesty I know my tower would have collapsed around my ankles long ago.

All credit to the talents that keep building theirs to the sky and beyond.


Thursday 19 September 2013

Sam Leak - Aquarium and Places album inspiration

In the months before the Christmas of 2010 I was contacted by young pianist, Sam Leak, who had recorded his debut album with the shining lights of James Allsopp, Calum Gorlay and Joshua Blackmore under the name Aquarium. It was a heartfelt request from a intense man who was searching for an imagery he couldn't quite put his finger on.

Unused drawing for Aquarium
Without ever meeting face to face you would think we started at a disadvantage, but Sam had other plans. He wrote me an honest letter, detailing a personal voyage of love fulfilled, unrequited and dashed upon the rocks. It was a letter that was so personal that I have never shown it to another person but it was full of depth and tangibility.

Kingston Town centre
The sincerity of the written word is all to rare nowadays, so you can imagine the effect it had on me, and although images came to mind it never felt as if its sentimental load was heavy enough to illustrate Sam's personal journey. After a correspondence and a few false starts, Sam sent me an email with images of empty warehouses, railway stations with slanting shadows and views of pedestrians with backs turned toward the viewer.

View from the elevated platform of
Hampton Wick Station
The photographs were old and grainy, the definition wasn't good, and all were most definitely black and white. Sam wrote, 'Do you see what I see?'........
Well there was nothing to see, perhaps that was the point, these were empty spaces, devoid of real human animation but rampant with the emotional detritus from the human condition. This was the world of the voyeur, which was very apt for an album entitled aquarium.

It was a matter of getting out into the urban spaces where our lives are staged and to experience those scenes where the main protagonist has left...... and the clues of the story remain. Sam was brought up in the Kingston area so that was where I started, trawling trains, sketching madly trying to find a modern 'Brief Encounter'. You see here some of the images that were drawn but never used. Always in black and white, with the grainy grittiness that Sam craved.

Kew Bridge Steam Museum
There was a healthy amount of industrial props on my wanderings, that only emphasised the loneliness that we sometimes feel. Although the drawings are indistinct and 'lost', Sam had already found the concept for his front cover. He wanted the CD face to be a tesseract, which is the four-dimensional analog of the cube. Or simply put, the tesseract is to the cube as the cube is to the square.

Amongst these set of drawings was one of Grosvenor Bridge, which is the rail conduit carrying passengers in and out of Victoria in London. Colour versions have been a popular painting for me but this new charcoal version was very gloomy. In its darkest corner is Battersea Power Station which has become an unlikely icon for Londoners. We decided to shelve the image because of its dimensions. It just wouldn't work on a CD cover, where one was a square format the other was a snaking panorama.
Grovesnor Bridge, Battersea, London
The debut album was released on Babel in 2011 and was well received.

"Multi-faceted and smart as a pin, this is poetic chamber jazz of a very high order" - Ingham, C. (2011, October). Aquarium. MOJO, 215, 96
Buy the album on Babel.

Eventually we met and I sketched him, although it took some time to get his profile just right.
To my surprise earlier this year he contacted me once again, asking if I could create an animation for his tune 'Marrakech' to help launch his new album 'Places' at King's Place.

I was seriously impressed by his latest compositions and wasn't at all surprised that Sam had given me just 10 days to complete the short film in. He often left this sort of thing to the last minute. Unexpectedly though Sam had already sorted the design and artwork for the album on Jellymould Jazz. It required a double take of course, but there was our bridge in confident graphic tones, it was strong and assured just like the album itself.

Once again Sam Leak's music reached out to pleasure critics and audiences alike.

"Leak clearly puts heart and soul into his writing, as well as his playing; the emotion and conviction are there for all to hear" Adrian Pallant, March 17th 2013 - AP Reviews website
“A band full of the great heavyweights we have on the young British jazz scene… a beautiful mixture of extraordinary playing… great grooves and extraordinary improvising. I’m a fan of this band.” Jamie Cullum
Rumour has it that Sam is embarking upon a PhD in Music Cognition at Cambridge University this year, lets hope this doesn't reduce his presence on the London and UK live music scene. 
He would be sorely missed.

Friday 13 September 2013

The dark side of Kelvin Christiane

Kelvin Christiane - Saxophone
Why would an artist choose to sit in front of 16 burly musicians and attempt to capture them all on paper in just two hours. Some might say I was destined to fail last Tuesday (10/09/2013) and they were right. It was the opening of Twickenham Jazz Club's Autumn/Winter season and the 16 specimens of manhood that presented themselves for roll call did so under the gaze of sergeant major Kelvin Christiane. Of course what brought me to attempt such a challenge of immortalising all these loyal jazz soldiers was the feel good factor of the Big Band.

Graham Russell - Trumpet
When faced with such a united front the best plan is to pick off a few well known faces and get them into your sketchbook. Although they looked sternly at me like Mussolini's Squadristi in their Blackshirts I knew that there were a few jokers in the pack. Chief among them being the irrepressible Graham Russell, who gently wafted his quips through the trumpet line like a naughty pupil with a stash of stink bombs.

Richard Sadler - Bass
Just behind Russell was bassist Richard Sadler, another stalwart of Christiane's ensembles, deep in thought, eyes barely rising above the trumpet trenches above him. Nowadays he sports a look somewhere between a young Lord Kitchener and the Village People's biker. I have to say he plays bass vastly better than both.

Graeme Taylor - Keys
The rearguard of Big Bands are often neglected so it was a pleasure to outflank them and spy a jocular Graeme Taylor on keys. He must be a good stick, for here is a man who is a leader in his own right. On this night demoted to water carrier for the saxophones at the front but usually he is the General of the Hot Waffle Big Band, a scorching funk ensemble, terrorising the Watford area.

Noel Joyce - Drums
To complete the back line was Noel Joyce. Hot from recording the latest Kelvin Christiane Album, The Arrival, along with Nigel Price and Larry Bartley. It is a CD of two halves, with the tunes split between Christiane's flute and baritone saxophone. I had been happily pressed-ganged into action for the artwork. You'll be able to buy it very soon from his website. LINK HERE

Jonathan Lewis - Trumpet
Although we started with Sammy Nestico's sweeping 'Switch in Time', it was a mere warm up for an excellent Christiane tune 'Spring Lullaby' from his Parisian Summer album. Jonathan Lewis (trumpet) was especially evocative by extracting the darkest themes from what is a particularly menacing lullaby. One eye swivelled toward us while the other shut, unnerving us even more. Max Macson, who recently appeared in Danny Boyle's 'Trance' and knows a thing or two about film scores, lent over and commented on its brooding nature, "Just like Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story".

Paul Jordanous - Trumpet
We were of course treated to Big Band staples that roused our cockles, none played better than by the late arriving Mr Paul Jordanous. The man is so busy, he may have well just hopped off a plane from the continent where he is in demand. It was back in London where I've heard the most glowing report of his skills at an Association of British Calypsonians concert recently from Rich Rainlore who just said "Spectacular". He lived up to expectations on Benny Golson's 'Whisper Not'.

Damian Cook - Alto Sax
'Thumbs' gave me a first glimpse of alto saxophonist Damian Cook. The lighting at the Bloomsbury can be problematic for the big band, after all it would be hard to train 16 spotlights on the performers. So Cook was deep in shadow and this cast a deep and thoughtful shadow on his demeanour. He may well be the most delicate of flowers but here he looked as though he had walked straight out of a Scandinavian murder drama, resplendent with an Arctic Circle beard.

Nick Mills - Trombone
Then came another Christiane composition, 'Thrills'. Strange in that it juxtaposed itself against all the togetherness of previous swinging tunes. Appealing because of its moments of discord and mature after the lightness of the tune preceding it, 'Joy Spring'.
Nick Mills solo epitomised the sentiment, slowly working toward unison then breaking the underlying themes apart. Thrills it was, as Mills became redder and redder as he took centre stage and we all wondered if he was going to blow the inner gasket in his impressive chest.

Chris Lowe - Trombone
'Groove Merchant' proved the perfect foil for Chris Lowe on trombone. Usually he wields his trombone as though he were a dueller seeking satisfaction from a rival suitor, but here was a more earthy and rich solo. Distinguished of course, but with Stuart Brooks they were like two gutsy Flappers dancing on the their big band table. Brazen and stylish.

Lesley Christiane
Lesley Christiane catapulted our post break blues away and despite being a little down hearted at the start of the evening, brought us her razzmatazz in the form of 'Taking a chance on love' and 'Orange coloured sky'. Once again she proved she is the doyenne of The Bloomsbury's Jazz scene.

Dave Eaglestone - Trombone
Before signing off let me mention the double barrels of Dave Eaglestone on trombone and Duncan Lamont Junior on Baritone saxophone.
Eaglestone rarely takes his turn in the limelight yet is undoubtedly the 'engine' of the band. Lamont was smooth, if that isn't an insult nowadays, on 'Superbone meets the bad man'.

Pete Hurt - Tenor Saxophone
Finally, Pete Hurt gave us his arrangement of 'Star Eyes'. Hurt is the epitome of substance over style, his playing style reminds one of the way Geoffrey Boycott converses, out of the side of the mouth and with a no nonsense approach.

It was great to be back in the company of the Twickenham Jazz Club crowd, warm in its embrace as the Autumnal nights draw in. The dark tinged lullaby of Kelvin Christiane's self-penned tunes brought us the thrill of September with its steamy breath and sweet orange decay. The Big Band's music though defies this yearly disintegration, capturing the audience in its fairytale spell, and bestowing upon us the ability to reverse the ageing process. If I keep going to their monthly nights I'm hoping I will be rejuvenated in the time for the Christmas party season.


Stuart Brooks - Trumpet
Chris Gower - Trombone

Duncan Lamont Junior -
Baritone Saxophone

Monday 9 September 2013

Noa Alvarez - Sweet Magnetism

Noa Alvarez
Noa Alvarez is that swirl of chocolate sauce that advertisers dream about. You know the one. Late at night whilst surfing TV channels your tummy is seismically activated by its sticky magnetism and the rumbles that ensue moisten an already salivating mouth. Last Sunday (08/09/2013) Noa and her band gave us a taste of this sweetness at the Half Moon in Putney without ever quite sating the appetite. It was an 'amuse bouche' before the banquet that I hope will be served by Alvarez in the years to come.

Ben Gilbert - keys
The five piece fitted seamlessly into the Half Moon's retro music room. Dressed predominately in black, they were lit by both hot and cool pools of light that seemed to have spilled out of a David Lynch film. The hottest of the performers was bathed in the steeliest of spectrums confusingly. The valleys either side of Ben Gilbert's widows peak reflected the harsh blue tones giving the impression that he was less than human. His topside pallor suggested automaton while the hands were those of a full blooded male. His attacking work and subsequent solo on a high tempo 'It might as well be spring' was excellent and he was equally adroit on 'How Deep is the Ocean'.

Terry Knight - drums
The hottest of lights rested on the heavies towards the rear, yet despite this responsibility Terry Knight kept a low profile. A subtle performer and a recent graduate of the infamously bacchanalian Dordogne Jazz Summer school Knight looked comfortable on drums. We look forward to the time when he will swap his I.T. persona for the jazz man he craves to be.

Paul Michael
The least familiar of the faces on stage, Paul Michael, deserves a better look and listen before my emotional barometer is tipped in his favour. Maybe its his fierce top knot that has me running scared, evoking all those memories of the quick witted outlaws of The Water Margin.

Although it was Gilbert who started things moving earlier in the first set with his work on Caravan, he was ably supported by Tormod Sund on trumpet. I have talked before about the trigger moves a musician makes when he or she is in the groove, and for Sund it is a knee rattle. The left in particular wobbled as if a cascade of small change had escaped from a hole in his pocket.

Tormod Sund - trumpet
Again and again you felt yourself drawn to Noa Alvarez's beautiful deep eyes that plunged beneath a dark heavy fringe. Arms braced beside her, shoulders see-sawed, fingers snapped and with a switch of those eyelashes you felt the magnetic poles draw you closer. Alvarez responded well to the chemistry between Gilbert and Sund on 'Caravan' and again on 'It might as well be spring'. The way she finished each tune with more heart than when she started made you feel there was more to come. Judge for yourself and hear her at The Pheasantry (King's Road) on the 26th October.


Sunday 1 September 2013

Partikel Cohesion - Album Inspiration

Front cover of Partikel's 2nd Album
After a month away from the Art and Jazz worlds it's good to be back. August was spent in France with a little bit of sketching, a generous amount of wine and plenty of swimming with the family. This year amongst the live sketches will be stories about the album artwork too. Mostly my own because I have access to the hidden artwork that never makes it to the public domain but hopefully other artists that I admire.

Today we start with Partikel's second album Cohesion that was released on Whirlwind Recordings in 2011.

A large part of my work portfolio is from musicians commissioning album artwork. The form of these album vary depending on the clients desires, their music or the label's in-house style.

Partikel in the studio
The most straightforward album covers start and end with images of the musicians themselves, either done in the studio or live at a gig. Of course working at gigs is exhilarating and the paintings have a life of their own. When working in the studio, it is invariably in booths, where the musicians are isolated from one another but occasionally (and more enjoyably) they record as an ensemble, where I can be inspired by their interactions and sound.

As an artist the creation of new work is always an exciting moment. Not only the birth of the music but the concepts and images inspired by its final form. I start to familiarise myself with the material and group by attending both gigs, rehearsals and of course the recording session. Then once the tracks have been honed to an acceptable level, usually post-mixed but pre-mastered they are sent to me. I sit in my studio and listen all the way through the CD and make written notes. These are sometimes gibberish, occasionally beautiful in form but always helpful in visualising the music physically. The notes are easy to carry around, meaning I can flick through them, jogging the memory when a blast of inspiration hits.

In this case I worked from a recording of a Partikel rehearsal, the day was 29th April 2011, our street was closed because of the Royal Wedding and below is what started to appear.

The Blood of the Pharoah
deep dangerous
wander – looking up and down
rings – strong earth colours
aboriginal dots
swirls – torque
lazy waft the breeze
slits of exoticness in between
Kew Gardens
Kisses through white painted wood
moving through the grass
gentle smooth

The Optimist
talking sweet, talking and talking
forgetting the time, then there's things to do
-when I'm having fun – we roll and pitch
There's that tune again
The best in front of the TV
I look out at the dust – or
maybe its the morning -
still there's a busy-ness
The clothes go round and
round in the machine -
still wet when they come
out – I lay them on me
to keep cool – look like
a doll---dress me up, cheerful -

Stretch it out
Birds in cages waking -
animals at the zoo -
I can hear the pelicans
the elephant is rolling around
the boar snuffing and
an animal rutting, rubbing,
picking, hitting all awakening
Food, Food, Food, Food
its around
eat in quiet

Grubs, insect crawling around
why can they escape
rattle the cage
wild lament
smell of the wild still
They wont take it from me.
I can still feel
Stretch out and taste the sun

The cages of Madame Gruszewski
'Room' ended up being the most creative of Partikel's tunes for me, creating several threads I wanted to pursue. The most effective was a group of cages I found and drew in the village of Cambieure in France, where I have my studio. These cages belonged to the wife of the Mayor, Mr Jacques GRUSZEWSKI, and I remembered seeing them there whilst completing a commission of his rose garden and house.

Add caption
It was the choice of Partikel's Duncan Eagles, Max Luthert and Eric Ford and we developed it further into the cover and back listing too. The upside down tulip inspired by Blood became the CD image and it went into production under the close scrutiny of Whirlwind Recording's Michael Janisch.

Favourable reviews followed and the rest is history.... or not quite.
The trio are hitting the road once again before recording their 3rd album with new and old material alike. Starting with an appearance at the Whirlwind Jazz Festival on the 10th October and finishing with a string of Scandinavian dates in December 2013.
See more on their website.