Take Five Europe: January 28-February 2, 2013
The first full day in London brought a rare opportunity to hear British saxophonist Iain Ballamy and Norwegian multi-instrumentalist Stian Carstensenwho work together as Little Radiodeliver an opening set at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in the heart of Soho, opening for pianist Michel Legrand. It was part of a small UK tour that also celebrated the reissue of the duo's long out-of-print debut, The Little Radio (Sound Recordings, 2004) on Ballamy's own Feral imprint. It's a welcome reissue, to be sure, as the album demonstrates the profound simpatico shared by these two broadminded musicians, as they wind their way through a repertoire ranging from standards like "Body and Soul" and originals like "Last Tango in Paradise" to seemingly curious but ultimately wonderful choices like the children's song "Teddy Bears' Picnic." The duo's performance at Ronnie's was short but sweet, as they used song forms as a basic premise, but approached the material in a completely free, fluid and open-ended fashion.
It's not uncommon to say, in the context of jazz, that every performance is different, but with some artists and groups, it's a matter of smaller degrees. With Ballamy and Carstensen, however, it's clear that what happens each time they sit down to play is as much a surprise to them as it is their audience. They don't exactly solo; instead, they collaborate, extemporizing together with one or the other rising to the surface occasionally, but more often than not, coming together as they twist, turn and skew songs into at times near-unrecognizable shapes, but always managing to find their way back.
It's all about trust, something the duo touched upon earlier that same day in a workshop at the Royal Academy of Music. The duo played first, and then opened up for questions from a group of students so large that many had to stand in the relatively small rehearsal room. With Ballamy's dry humor and Carstensen's rapid-fire, razor-sharp wit (characteristics mirrored in his playing), the workshop was as entertaining as it was instructional; still, there was plenty to learn, with Carstensen a virtual encyclopedia of music and how various cultures shape it. One of the most important moments came, before the two split off to speak to individual groups (jazzers and accordionists), when Carstensen illustrated how different cultures ornament the music, as he played the same song on button accordion but, one after the other, demonstrating how a classical musician might approach it, how someone from Bulgaria would interpret it, and how coming from Serbia would create a very different result. Carstensen and Ballamy also touched upon a most important aspect of music that's often lost: music is played by people for people, and so it doesn't always come from academia; sometimes it comes from live events where people get drunk, get happy, get aggressive and just plain get down.
Carstensen's virtuosity, both at the workshop and Ronnie's, was staggering; a musical mind that's always searching, it seemed reflected in the way he often looked off to the distance and up to the sky when he played. His other group, Farmers Market, put out its best record yet last year with Slav to the Rhythm (Division Records, 2012), and whether he's playing pedal steel, guitar, banjo, kaval or accordion, he's not just mastered his instruments, he's become absolutely credible and culturally authentic on them, regardless of their backgrounds.
Ballamy's strengths were considerably subtler, as he was clearly disinterested in overt demonstrations of virtuosity, both here and in one of his other major groups, Foodanother Anglo-Norwegian collaboration, this time with percussionist Thomas Stronen, and whose latest release, Mercurial Balm (ECM, 2013), may be its best yet. But Ballamy, who focused solely on tenor saxophone with Carstensen (who only brought his MIDI-capable button accordion to the date), clearly has it all, as he proved on occasion with unexpected bursts of serpentine lines. It's rare enough an opportunity to see these two musicians together once, but to see them twice in once day was an even more unexpected treat.
Another opportunity that was just as much a matter of luck and timing was finding saxophonist Evan Parker conducting his now-annual Might I Suggest festival series at The Vortex Jazz Club, in London's east end. It was a terrific chance to pay a first visit the increasingly well-known and influential club, now celebrating its 25th year; a feat in itself, given its volunteer-driven, not-for-profit status.
For Parker's 2013 series, he recruited the Dutch ICP Orchestra for a series of performances that broke the 10-piece ensemble into a series of subsets augmented by some local guest players, exploring all manner of permutations and combinations, leading to a full-on performance on February 2 that was a bittersweet and, by all accounts, memorable show where pianist and ICP co-founder Misha Mengelbergsadly, suffering from the increasing ravages of Alzheimer's diseasemanaged to perform for longer than anyone had thought possible.
Mengelberg was also seated near the front of the house for the series' opening night on January 28, where a trio featuring cellist Tristan Honsinger, guitarist John Russell and violinist Mary Oliver delivered an angular set, highlighted by Honsinger's startling vocalizations and, very briefly, some soft whistling from Mengelberg. A second set was more grounded, with saxophonist/clarinetist Tobias Delius, trumpeter Claude Deppa and trombonist Gail Brand improvising freely, supported by bassist Ernst Glerum and drummer Steve Noble, surprising the audience (or, perhaps, not so much a surprise for those familiar with ICP) by following their relatively brief free piece with an unexpectedly swinging standardplayed, of course, with predictable unpredictability and verve.
After a final day wandering London, from the British Museum to Royal Festival Hall, a lengthy tube and train trip from Reading to Sevenoaks on the morning of January 31 meant arriving at Take Five Europe in full swing, its ten musicians wrapping up a morning of music rehearsals, only to break for lunch before diving into an afternoon of discussion from The Orchard's Scott Cohen, who spoke about the challenges of communications, digital distribution and media, and yours truly, providing some insight into how a musician might attract the attention of a writer at a time when more music is being produced than ever before.