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Live From Old York: Mark Lockheart, King Courgette, La Mer Trio & YO1 Festival

Live From Old York: Mark Lockheart, King Courgette, La Mer Trio & YO1 Festival
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Mark Lockheart's Ellington In Anticipation
The National Centre For Early Music
April 25, 2014

The music of Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
might represent an oft-traversed path across the jazz firmament, but the English saxophonist and composer Mark Lockheart
Mark Lockheart
Mark Lockheart

saxophone
can justify such persistent attentions. During the last decade, this tenor man has principally been associated with Polar Bear
Polar Bear
Polar Bear

band/orchestra
, those champions of skittish alternative jazzelectro sounds. In the 1980s, though, he established his reputation as a member of big band Loose Tubes, those recently re-united masters of organized anarchy. This was followed by Perfect Houseplants in the 1990s. The pieces that have sprung out of Lockheart's Ellington In Anticipation project (and accompanying 2013 album on Subtone Records) could be deemed reincarnations, rejuvenations or re-jiggings of those hallowed Duke works. So much so, that some of them are not even immediately recognizable as being their originators, at least not until some minutes into a given reading.

This gig assembled the entire original recording personnel, with Lockheart joined by Polar Bear's drummer-leader Sebastian Rochford, bassist Tom Herbert, pianist Liam Noble, alto saxophonist Finn Peters (with occasional flute), clarinetist James Allsopp and violist Margrit Hasler. This is an ensemble that resides in the mid-ground between small group and orchestra, armed with a sufficient palette to evoke Ellington, yet compact enough to focus terse soloing energies.

Even though this gig was quite well attended, given the extreme paucity of jazz shows in York played by out-of-towners, it was disappointing that it wasn't sold out, as is often the case with the NCEM's global music inclined performances. The pickings in town are so slim here that non-York combos appear only a handful of times during the year. These scarce opportunities ought to be seized with more enthusiasm by potential attendees.

As a result of his previous appearance in this converted church, Lockheart elected to perform in acoustic fashion, apart from a pair of small amplifiers for viola and bass. "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" was an easy ramble into the terrain, but still nevertheless re-structured into a post-bebop, almost-free jazz abstraction, a flight that could suddenly hit the ground, skidding and trouncing along with an earthy momentum. The progress of "Caravan" was much trickier, only alighting on its familiar melody towards the climax. Although Lockheart has arranged these diversions, he makes their genesis sound completely organic and spontaneous. The band has developed a deep rapport by now, seamlessly throwing solos to each other, taking up the riff-slack once their own spotlight run has concluded. Or perhaps paused for contemplation, before bursting into flames once again. A softly-spoken "Come Sunday" glided into "Satin Doll," which became "Jungle Lady" under the Lockheart quill, another moderately radical re-christening. Its twin saxophone blow-out was a highlight of the evening, sublimely followed by a cooling bass clarinet solo. "Azure" was given a 1920s period sheen, even though it was composed a decade later than that, whilst a pointillist "Take The A Train" managed to rocket off into a near jazz-funk zone, with Lockheart delivering a juicy tenor solo. "I'm Beginning To See The Light" appeared to twist into "Wade In The Water," then "Mood Indigo" manifested itself as a bassy tribal rumpus. This band could just as engagingly apply their unique approach to further jazz masters, but for now, there's still an abundance of hidden glitter to be mined within those deeply sumptuous, velvet-lined Ellington shafts.

King Courgette
The Friargate Theatre
May 2, 2014

Here we had a bunch of presumed Yorkshiremen pretending to be sons of the Appalachian mountains, simultaneously struggling with an urgently acquired Frenchness. It was the launch of the French Fries performance season to herald the coming of the transposed Tour De France to these parts, and the band's selection could just about be deemed justified when the chaps pelted into their clutch of Louisiana Cajun numbers. Down on the Clifton Delta, identities had been vigorously shaken into a vegetable smoothie, in the name of a night's fun hoe-down. Stylistically, King Courgette skilfully hopped between bluegrass, jazz, blues, skiffle and all manner of sub-graftings between these genres. It was American music viewed through rebellious English eyes, where all styles were equally ripe for harvest.

Constant instrument-swapping ensued, with quick-witted banter covering the transitions. Around halfway through the gig, the band's banjo man and upright bassist swapped roles at their respective stage-ends. Harmony vocals rang out from most of the band's keening throats. National steel guitar was swapped for fiddle, mandolin or guitar for accordion, the tunes switched from blues to bluegrass. The night was diced up into three sets, so the event turned into quite a marathon given that local troubadour David Ward Maclean had already opened with a 45 minute solo voice-and-guitar sequence. It's testament to the energetic Courgette entertainment abilities that this was sustained with admirable gusto, the final sequence upped into a foot-clacking party, led by ace percussionist Zucchini Bill Hickling. Not satisfied with his washboard, triangle, tambourine and suitcase bass drum, he shunned all these to simply hoof on a board, using sand-spillage for added percussive scrape to his metal soles. King Courgette amply succeeded in mashing a mulch of wildly diverse Americana strains, sometimes with authentic verve, and at others, ridiculously and deliberately faked. The intimate Friargate 100-seater theatre provided an ideal environment for whipping up the capacity mini-throng.

La Mer Trio
York Unitarian Chapel
May 3, 2014

La Mer Trio featured Renate Sokolovska (flute), Maja Wegrzynowska (viola) and Hannah Stone (harp), making up perhaps the ultimate sensitive chamber music combination. This was to be an evening of delicately spatial pieces, all of them short in duration. The London trio began playing together in 2010, their very nature rooted in the demands of Claude Debussy's 1915 "Sonata For Flute, Viola And Harp." Toru Takemitsu's "And Then I Knew 'Twas Wind" opened, leading into a solo harp piece by Salvatore Sciarrino, made up of minute, high note scribblings, blooming out into shimmering flourishes, alternating and returning, then concluding with gentle middle-string palm-slaps. Composer Michael Parkin was in attendance for this gig, his "Courting Rites Of Cranes" starting with Sokolovska vocalizing into her alto flute. Wegrzynowska plucked her viola, fast-stroked into a solo spell, then all three players coincided with shades of Indian classical music, although perhaps a Japanese feel was intended by the composer. After two solo harp shorties, it was prime time for Debussy's "Syrinx" for solo flute. Hipster-types might be more familiar with the subsequent "Density 21.5," which had Edgard Varèse paying homage to this work. Timothy Raymond was also present, for the premiere of his "Memorae," which was fortunate to be accompanied by actual birdsong outside the chapel, sensitive to its liquid, linear passage. In a moment, it became suddenly fragmented into shards, riddled with overblowing and bow-dragging. The concluding "Between Earth And Sea" was the most starkly dramatic work of the evening, composed by Sally Beamish. Ultimately, this concert possessed a dark sensitivity, dominated by somber and elemental moods.

YO1 Festival
The Knavesmire
May 4, 2014

This was the third YO1 Festival, a smaller one-day cousin to its larger relatives. Its multi-stage, multi-tent nature was a compacted version of what's expected from a larger-scale weekender. Even though the eight stages were relatively close to each other, noise spillage wasn't so much of a problem, due to a sensible approach to general volume levels. Loud enough inside, but not so much that this interfered with surrounding tents. Besides major hip hop headliners De La Soul, the main thrust of the fest was to feature all the various facets of the York music scene, with leading venues or promoters hosting stages and programming the day's line-up. Interestingly, some of the city's more alternative joints were prominent here, notably the Bison coffee shop and the Irie Vibes reggae sound system. It soon became apparent that these two tent-spaces were the most hospitable surroundings, rather than the larger mainstream house and techno spaces.

The Renegade Brass Band, from Sheffield, aped the popular Stateside style of merging hip hop stance with old school New Orleans parading, to moderately convincing effect. They've recorded with singer Harleighblu and rapper Rodney P, who followed on the same Night Vision stage soon after. In between were Soundsci, a punchy pair of MCs with a confident thrust. Harleighblu sounds fine on her Tru Thoughts label debut, but this set fell distinctly flat, partly due to the extreme sparseness of the crowd, but also a certain lack of projection on her part. Rodney P seemed to be sensitive to the situation when he joined Harleighblu onstage, switching plans a few times, boosting the speed of the beats and changing the set list. The pair didn't manage their stage time efficiently, as their intended duo closer had to be aborted due to the fest's strict changeover regime. The shrunken crowd for this last set prompted musings on possible restrictions on site capacity, as it seemed that the festival was sold out, or very nearly sold out, but most stages appeared to be nowhere near optimum fullness at any time. When De La Soul was playing, half of the main tent was empty. Perhaps the health and safety regulations were set at their accustomed level of absurdity.

Another cooking zone was the small BBC Radio York tent, dedicated to introducing fresh talent. The stripling Ceiling Demons were shambolic, possibly even intentionally so, but possessed a relaxed confidence, even when they all removed their deathly masks, rapping at the borders of the unconventional. Local duo Viewer were one of the day's stand-outs, augmented by guest vocalist Toastie Tailor, whose ragga/d'n'b stylings formed a stark contrast with spindly contorter A.B. Johnson's more perversely poetic couplets, the latter graduating more from the Mark E. Smith academy of rap. Two articulate rhyming languages, easily complementing each other, wired up for tension. Electronicist Tim Wright was more visible than usual, actually mid-stage and facing the audience. Normally, the band's pulsingly minimalist visuals will dominate, but this mid-afternoon set courted an alternative response. It was great to witness a cluster of dancers locking onto the beats, an activity that often isn't possible when Viewer play at smaller indoor venues. Wright infiltrated the pert beat-progressions with outbreaks of distressed extremity, and just about kept on the electro-pop leash.

Across at the Irie Vibes tent, ska combo Dandy & De Lions maintained a jogging pace, adding nothing new to the genre, but playing with an appealing brightness. Then, the stylistic coin was flipped by the Dub Barn Collective, lunging slowly and deeply. They played live instruments rather than emulating reggae deconstruction electronically. And who should that be on percussion, but Zucchini Bill Hickling from King Courgette, revealing another facet of his musicality? An amble to the Bison encampment revealed Muttley Crew, caught in a prime intersection of their garage-y post-Velvet Underground riff-churning, with angular lead guitar solos bursting out at surge-rising peaks. Following them, the ever-morphing Boss Caine was found in trio formation, with fiddle and lead guitar surrounding subterranean vocal croons. Depending on musical orientation and spontaneous choices, this could have been a very different festival for numerous beings, as there was no shortage of house, techno and indie-pop, but that's simply the desired result of a day's spontaneous musical piggery.

Photo Credit
Tim Dickeson

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