Jazzelectro Sounds: Live from Birmingham, England

Martin Longley By

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Birmingham, England
March 2008
Electric Kulintang at the CBSO Centre
New York percussionist Susie Ibarra last came to the CBSO Centre with trumpeter Dave Douglas, when he was premiering his Blue Latitudes piece with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. That gig found her in both composed and improvised states, but this time Ibarra's been asked back to present the Electric Kulintang project, an investigation of her Philippine heritage, in partnership with Cuban husband Roberto Rodriguez. Despite being an active hands-on percussionist, his role in this set-up is largely as laptop boffin, switching between sample-triggering and slapping his bassy cajon, a hollow box-resonator that's much used in flamenco, Cuban and Peruvian music.

Ibarra does most of the swapping around, moving from full drum kit to traditional Philippine Kulintang gongs, and briefly toying with her keyboard. Rodriguez sets up a series of gently undulating electro-wash patterns, over which Ibarra performs shimmering repetitions, establishing a mood of pulsating exoticism. There's a problem arising when this music is clearly suited to environmental relaxation but is here presented as a concert experience, scrutinised by a seated-in-rows audience. Somehow, there's not enough happening, with the live performance element lacking in thrust. It might have been better presented in a relaxed bar environment, with a greater sense of atmosphere, and some shimmering lighting effects. Here in the CBSO Centre, the music felt too exposed to cold analysis. It was frustrating that Rodriguez was largely preoccupied with his laptop, and when he did move over to the full kit, a fleeting taste of groove- empowerment was given, teasing the audience with what might have been, if this duo had been expanded by one or two players.

B.E.A.S.T. at the CBSO Centre

The Birmingham Electro-Acoustic Sound Theatre is celebrating twenty-five years of sonic-dispersal activity, ensconced in the music-laboratory bowels of Birmingham University, where composer and founder Jonty Harrison devotes himself to adding more-and-more outputs to his multi-speaker array. The last gong-shimmer died out at the Friday night Electric Kulintang gig, and the B.E.A.S.T. roadies were already humping in their massive bulk of equipment, setting up overnight for a weekend programme of electro- acoustic pieces, both old and new. Harrison was curating the first night, opening up with the indoor virtual fireworks of Scott Wilson's "BEASTLY Birthday Fanfare," straight away illustrating the capacity for the B.E.A.S.T. sound set-up to diffuse its sonic imagery around and about the Centre's arching spaces.

The most striking piece of the first half was Annie Mahtani's newly-composed "Past Links," which travelled from restrained faintness, tickling and ticking around the perimeter, to huge rumbling rushes, surging from forward to rear, within the subjective head-space. In the second half, Harrison's own "Undertow" held the audience's collective head below the surface, dissecting the sound of oceanic glugging, seemingly just at the point where air meets water. His careful sculpting turned random sound into momentous musical patterns, retaining just enough natural ambience to present the illusion of undoctored reality.

The Michael Janisch/Pete Zimmer Quartet at The Drum

Every Sunday night, saxophonist and rapper Soweto Kinch leads his Live Box session down at The Drum, inviting along guest players who'll invariably end up joining in with the evening's jam session element. A New York vibration was in the air, with drummer Pete Zimmer crossing the Atlantic for his first UK gigs, teaming up with bassman Michael Janisch, who's an American living in London. Completing the line-up are tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm (also from NYC), and guitarist Phil Robson, one of the UK's hottest guitarists. At first, they're in mainline blowing mode, playing in brisk post-bebop mode, but when Frahm introduces one of his own compositions, a homage to Ornette Coleman, the combo makes a sudden swerve, revealing their nervy aspect, sending the tenor man off on a careening path of escalating complexity and intensity. His pieces range from one that he composed the day before, to another that's been percolating for five years...

Charlie Dark's African Beats at The Jam House

In the gaps between tunes, DJ Charlie Dark offered a brief life story, reminiscing about his early encounters with the music of Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade. It's these sections of his record collection that have inspired the African Beats tour, as Dark hits the road with a one-off live band that might just get it together again in the future. He's often the man who sets off a song, triggering beats which are bolstered by Mark De Clive-Lowe's own twitchy fingerings, before the keyboardist moves to the Fender Rhodes, which is groaning under the weight of his sampling apparatus. The percussive web is further thickened by Richard Olatunde and Chief Udoh Essiet, the latter having played many gigs with Kuti and Ade, in times of old.

They're juggling between congas, talking drum and the tiniest frame drums possible, and the whole band's bass thrust risks turning into a clogging glue, out of which will emerge a headbanging funk bump, setting off guitarist David Okumu on an Afro-spangling spree. He's managing to take the raw matter of soukous, juju and Afrobeat, splicing these stylistic traits onto those of his own jazz-funk heritage. Okumu ends up with a further evolution of these forms. After an uncertain beginning, Dark's fusion grows a forceful momentum, and the quintet ends up with a chunky Afro-funk that steals from Kuti and Ade, but not without adding its own modernising benefits.

The Grande Mothers Of Invention at The Robin 2

It's a rare occurrence for a combo that devotes itself to the music of Frank Zappa to disappoint its audience. This is because if such a band elects to tackle such a substantially complex repertoire as this, it's usually the case that they're feeling pretty damned confident regarding their musical abilities. This state is magnified immensely when an outfit revolves around three original Mothers Of Invention. Saxophonist Napoleon Murphy Brock, keyboardist Don Preston and bassist Roy Estrada are touring with drummer Chris Garcia and guitarist Miroslav Tadic, reinterpreting Zappa's works with an astounding level of energy and precision. Preston and Estrada were part of the oldest Mothers line-up, whilst Brock's period spanned 1974- 1984.

There's an understandable concentration on the Overnite Sensation and One Size Fits All albums, with Brock revisiting his original tight-trousered vocal role on the latter. Curiously, there are some numbers where none of the threesome were part of the original sessions, but this gap doesn't prevent them from delivering some classic perversion-of-the-Zappa moments. There are even a few Captain Beefheart frissons, with a showing from "Carolina Hardcore Ecstasy," from the Bongo Fury collaboration album, plus an incorporation of his poem, "Neon Meate Dream Of A Octafish." These are getting to be old men, but they look and behave like much younger beings. This being the final night of their UK tour, the Mothers are tight indeed, and visibly enraptured.

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