March 3, 2017
Taupe is a colour that's ostensibly beige, but in reality seems to frequently inhabit a close-to-grey zone. Taupe is also the chosen name of this stripling prog-jazz trio from Newcastle-upon-Tyne in northern England. Puzzlingly so, as their compacted, nervous, twitching compositions suggest something brighter, sizzling arc lights or short-circuited flashing. Irony in jazz remains alive. Or is the Taupe output almost as much rock'n'roll in its nature? Despite sharing common concerns with the likes of Roller Trio
or Led Bib
, these three enjoy well-developed stylistic personalities, particularly as they all look around seventeen years young. Unlike most newcomers, Taupe are already born with confidence and the means to attack, rocketing through a sequence of hard, twisting, jagged, jump-cutting pieces, their set refined in the midst of a substantial tour itinerary.
Alto saxophonist Jamie Stockbridge and guitarist Mike Parr Burman have to tread carefully around their ample spread of footpedal electronics, as they heavily contort the expected sounds of their instruments. Drummer Adam Stapleford keeps it straight, although his kit is like unto that of a rock sticksman rather than a jazzer, augmented with extra cymbals and side-snare. Most of the numbers are throttlers, but there are a few shifty shifts down into an ambient abyss, painting impressionistic washes around the cave-walls. During the opening tune, Burman breaks a string in his enthusiasm, so Stockbridge indulges in some amusing banter, and then he and Stapleford improvise an introduction to the second piece. Another example of Taupe's bold approach. Fresh string tautened, Burman eases into the intended follow-up, and the rest of the set is free of any snags, unless these are perversely introduced by the band.
There are prog, post or math rock influences at play (whichever of these categories is triggered), but the end-sound remains determinedly jazzed, loaded with rhythmic trickery and flying fingertips. Stapleford is particularly speedy and sensitive when rattling around his traps, perhaps the most rock-indebted of the threesome. Burman's guitar more regularly suggests a diet of jazz mavericks as hero-mentors. The ultimate root of the Stockbridge stance is probably John Zorn
. Although Taupe don't leave much space for abstract 'soloing,' they've become so immersed in the material, via obvious on-the-road proficiency, that the violent freedom lies in the soaring assurance of their manic riff-delivery.
Dr. K. Sextet
Saint Saviourgate Unitarian Chapel
March 4, 2017
The 2017 Late Music Concert Series opened with a themed performance by the Dr. K. Sextet, from London. This annual season is devoted to new music composition, and is open to elements from the spheres of jazz, rock, folk and electronica. The binding factor for this programme was ostensibly compositions with a narrative thrust, but strangely enough, this frequently meant that a traditional music nature lurked somewhere at the root, an area where storytelling is often central. Many of the programmed pieces were folk songs, elaborated upon by modern composers.
Dr. K. spent most of the evening breaking up into smaller permutations, in order to feed the needs of individual pieces. Their spread includes flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion. The group has been together for eight years now. All six members joined in for a Peter Maxwell Davies arrangement of dances from "The Two Fiddlers," an opera by Storm Kolson. Davies prompted a comedic jape, with sharp switches in pace and structure, heavy with rattled snare drum and slurred violin, playfully humorous in the new music way (i.e. slightly stiff light-heartedness). Sadie Harrison's "Bell Music For Saint Casimir" only required clarinet and piano, with some spacious key-delay on the latter, a miniature with a Lithuanian folk root. The piano was joined by flute for Thomas Simaku's embellishment of an old Albanian-Italian traditional tune, "My Beautiful Morea," billowing lyricism as romantic foreplay. The best work of the evening was Kaija Saariaho's 1990 "Oi Kuu," as Alice Murray's faint cello groans combined with George Sleightholme's bubbling-pot bass clarinet, emitting a low layering of frosty drones and resonant sustains. "The Durham Strike" (Howard Skempton) had solo piano making delicate progressions, considered pauses, emerging with a graceful antelope prance, suddenly curtailed.
This was followed by another concert highlight, the global premiere of London composer Jasmin Kent Rodgman's "Recitations For Violin And Loop Pedals." Violinist Alice Barron's studies of Indian carnatic music formed part of the sonic foundation, alongside Rodgman's partly pictorial score. The looping wasn't as extreme as we might have imagined, confined to the capturing of faint cave-drip bow-blows and, eventually, slow-drawled base-matter. For this last part, Barron switched violins and laid down a detailed, partly-improvised embellishment of strokes and glancing blows over the strafed surface. The piece became eventually recognisably Indian in tone, with its drawn-out glides building towards the conclusion.
Perhaps the rendering of Alexander Viñao's "Khan Variations" was one too many fragmentation of the potential six-piece membership, a piece for solo marimba, as delivered by Joseph Richards. Penned in 2001, it reflected on the songs of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the now-departed Pakistani qawwali singer. Flashes of his repertoire began to peek through at key points, but the traceries were deliberately subtle. Sadly, the evening's only disappointment arrived with the closing sextet reunion, as Thomas Albert's "Thirteen Ways" suffered from overly pompous poetry-declamations prior to each section (from Thirteen Ways Of Looking At A Blackbird
, by Wallace Stevens), with too many references to blackbirds and not enough thematic unity, two or three of the phases featuring what sounded like Philip Glass cast-offs. The work was commissioned by the Chicagoan group Eighth Blackbird, and premiered in 1998...
The National Centre For Early Music
March 6, 2017
A leveret is a young hare, but it's also the name of this English folk semi-super trio, featuring Andy Cutting (melodeons), Rob Harbron (concertina) and Sam Sweeney (fiddle). These players aren't the starriest names on the current scene, but they are certainly amongst its finest. Sweeney is a BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards musician-of-the-year, and creator of Made In The Great War. Cutting forged his reputation in partnership with Chris Wood, and is now playing with Blowzabella. Harbron works with The Full English. This fifth date of Leveret's substantial tour found them steaming through two sets of largely new material, destined for their next album, whose binding concept is to spotlight the threesome's original compositions.
It's early days yet, and the tunes are already sounding at ease with themselves. "Robber's Road" was actually developed at this very venue, during the soundcheck to a previous gig, and the NCEM's converted church-space is well-liked by the band, something of an acoustic treat. Most of these fresh works are so new that they haven't yet been titled, but one of Sweeney's had a preamble about his recent difficulties in tuning, since cleaning out his fiddle. This violin once belonging to the now-departed master of folk fiddling, Dave Swarbrick. Sweeney had decided to use the trusty cleaning method of rolling uncooked rice around its interior. Out jumped an unruly, hairy dust-ball, with Sam declaring that "the soul of Swarb has been removed forcibly by rice." Perhaps he has one of the titles already! The three individual parts of this tune sounded less glued-together, the band members allowing themselves more space to move, freer to roam. A healthy degree of improvisatory self-discovery is part of the official Leveret ethos. Here, they were cascading individual parts, engaging in a heightened dialogue. This prompted the thought that for much of the time, the only drawback with this impressive combo is that the three of them sometimes adhere too tightly to each other's lines, leaving scarce space in the surrounding air. Then came two little jigs in D (further lack of titling, and they're running out of time before the album's production deadline), facilitating extra footwork from the band, even if the audience didn't take up their suggestion of dancing around the edges of the space. The encore included "Terminus," one of the new pieces already blessed with a name.
The University Of York
March 10, 2017
The White Rose Electroacoustic Music Network brings together the Universities of York, Sheffield and Leeds, each presenting works that are mostly drawn from their student or tutor ranks. For this gig, it was the turn of Leeds, resulting in a very impressive set of pieces for multi-speaker mixer-diffusion. It wasn't even particularly necessary to close our peepers for the duration, as the auditorium was plunged into darkness anyway. All the better to facilitate an unleashed spatial imagination, as sonic matter whooshed, flitted, rammed or crept from corner-to-corner of the mind's ear.
Nine works were presented, opening with an odd one out, a live recording from 1968 or perhaps '69. "Shozyg I & II" features composer/performers Hugh Davies and Richard Orton utilising closely-amplified objects in a kind of real-time electroacoustic improvisation, their precise metal-distressing being magnified into a behemoth scale. The Shozyg instruments were made inside a scooped-out encyclopedia, filled with various common metal objects, covered with contact microphones (it was the sho-zyg volume). This is where academic composition and free improvisation intersect, as Davies was a regular member of Derek Bailey's Company, at this time. The piece was commissioned to mark the 1969 opening of the Lyons Concert Hall, just next door to Rymer Auditorium, where this concert was given. Orton worked at The University Of York, for nearly two decades, establishing its pioneering electronic music department in 1968.
A pair of recent pieces displayed the full potentiality of this medium, with Jake Randell and Edward Wilson-Stephens both making use of forceful bass percussiveness, contrasted with clipped, staccato outbursts, derived from a chapel pipe organ and a stack of distressed vinyl, in turn. One of the most arresting works was "DK/LOB," by Charlotte Bickley, lifting the extreme mass-delivery to maximum levels, spreading enlarged granular noise speckles around an ambitiously cavernous pseudo-cranium, touching the furthest corners of the skull, and providing an exhausting mass of carefully-sculpted matter. It's apparently sourced from a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan recording (him again!), but we wouldn't really know that, so radically beyond have its constituent parts travelled. The closing work, "Olona," by Maeve Brayne, is more conventional in terms of replicating typical electroacoustic traits, its use of vocal field-capturings, and its episodic structure, but in spite of this it's still well-controlled and ambitiously staged.
Joan As Police Woman/Kris Drever/Richard J. Birkin
Pocklington Arts Centre
March 11, 2017
This show celebrated the first decade (or more) of Reveal Records, a Derby label whose diversity was displayed in full. Richard J. Birkin would probably align himself with artists such as Nils Frahm and Max Richter, his set revolving around the acoustic piano, but with subtle electronic interference. Birkin's gradual deepening of phrases was unsettled by his triggering of a particularly persistent bass presence, close to low feedback hum. Whether such extremity was intended, or whether his electro-boxes took over, is uncertain, but there was only one number which featured this jarring co-habitation. Your scribe frequently gobbles up the bass fodder, but this seemed more distracting than captivating. At the other extreme, once Birkin settled for lone piano, his output sometimes tended to stray, from minimalism towards background meander. He acted as a scene-setter for the more conventional troubadours to come.
Singer-guitarist Kris Drever represents the traditional values contained within alternative folk trio Lau, who are often embedded with electronic elements, gliding into atmospheric abstraction. Here, his Orkney songster heart is pure and exposed, although Drever's original material manages to subvert the plain old folk tune, most often via its modernised wordsmithery. His acoustic guitar-work is detailed, and his voice is expressive, leading the chase from a narrative standpoint.
Joan As Police Woman was born as Joan Wasser, this New Yorker opening her solo set at the acoustic piano, immediately remarkable as a charismatic communicator. Her voice, whether deliberately or not, is very close-miked, but still not too over-loud. Every detail of her nuanced phrasing is apparent, her breathing and sniffing (the latter reminiscent of David Bowie's during his Thin White Duke period) becoming an integral part of the phrasing. Rarely do we hear a singer who is so in control of their voice, even if parts of the Police Woman's delivery collapse in other ways, with a few fluffs of piano lines. Wasser doesn't care, because she's confident that her performance is generally superior anyway. These building elements of voice and piano might be potentially limited, but Wasser is always conjuring unfamiliar ways to circumvent the predictable.
Photo Credit: Dave Croft