Take Five Europe: January 28-February 2, 2013

Take Five Europe: January 28-February 2, 2013
John Kelman By

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Take Five Europe
Bore Place
Sevenoaks Weald, Kent, UK
January 28-February 3, 2013

While solid jazz education for aspiring musicians is increasingly accessible, few programs tackle the harsh realities facing the emerging musician of the 21st century. With the dissolution of major labels, and a shift in revenue that often makes having a publicist and/or manager a luxury few can afford, today's jazz musicians are truly being forced to become small business owners, with their product being their music. But like any small business, success is not strictly measured on how good the product is; a myriad of business concerns enter the picture, ranging from how the product is presented to how it's funded.

Some artists find the transition to a multi-tasked career as musician, booking agent, manager and publicist an easy one, but for many, these are skills for which they are either completely unprepared or, even worse, thoroughly disinterested.

For a number of years now, Serious—one of the UK's leading producers and curators of live jazz, including the London Jazz Festival—in collaboration with a number of other sponsors and producing partners, has been hosting an annual initiative called Take Five. First focusing solely on the UK, it's an artist retreat that each year provides eight British musicians a timeout period from the daily grind, where they can focus on not just music-making but on networking and business skill development. The UK edition has already helped further the careers of a number of notable young UK musicians, including pianists Dave Stapleton (co-founder of Edition Records), Soweto Kinch and Alexander Hawkins, saxophonists Trish Clowes and Pete Wareham, and drummer Sebastian Rochford.

Looking at that roster, it's clear that the artists invited to participate were not fresh out of school or lacking some prior experience; instead, all in relatively early stages of their careers—with some recording and touring under their belt as well as some leadership opportunities—these were somewhat established players having already achieved a measure of success, but largely in the UK alone. In every case, these were artists in need of assistance to reach the next level in their careers by acquiring the business skills necessary to ultimately find a broader, international audience. And that's where Take Five came in.

After seven successful UK editions, Take Five expanded its reach in 2012, creating a parallel program, Take Five Europe. Ten musicians—two each from the UK, Netherlands, Norway, Poland and France—are chosen to participate. Taken to a relatively removed location where they are forced to forget their day-to-day routines, it gives each musician an opportunity to not just network with peers from other countries—and exposure to music that may well be out of their comfort zones—but to also connect with people from other parts of the music industry, ranging from festival and club presenters, record label owners and artist managers to journalists, photographers and more, for a series of lectures and discussions, all leading to a better understanding that, in today's environment, being a good musician—even a superlative musician—simply isn't enough. Subjects range from project funding, getting the gig, attracting audiences and contracts/copyrights/publishing to gaining a writer's attention, agency and management and more.

The practical music sessions are hosted by renowned saxophonist/clarinetist John Surman, a longtime bandleader with experience across the broadest possible spectrum of jazz. His role, as composer-in-residence, is to guide and facilitate the building of a repertoire in the short space of one week, to which each musician contributes one original composition or improvisational context, leading not just to a performance on the morning of the program's final day, but to a series of live performances at festivals hosted by some of Take Five Europe's producing partners once the week is over.

The event's purpose and curriculum has been honed and improved, year after year—a good example being the more recent recruitment of Mary McCusker to help better focus the artists on performance and presentation. Matters of language are addressed by ensuring that there are professional translators available throughout the week for those who need it. And the program couldn't take place at a better location than Bore Place, a charming eco-friendly retreat near Sevenoaks Weald in Kent that's a still-functioning farm now also used for educational purposes—and which provides a comfortable barn rehearsal space, pleasant lodging and unexpectedly outstanding food, all from organic sources. Attending the three final days of Take Five Europe's 2013 edition—participating in the educational program and sitting in on rehearsals, auditing The Dragon's Den (more about that later) and attending the final day performance of the group's entire repertoire—was an exhilarating and educational experience.

But before making the trek to Sevenoaks, a few days in London acted as a reminder of why the UK scene is so vital and, returning to UK capital after nearly 30 years, just how much has changed. It was an opportunity to connect with some friends, meet up with fellow All About Jazz contributors Chris May, Bruce Lindsay and John Eyles in person for the first time (after working with them for as much as nine years), catch a little music here and there, and, thanks to BBC Radio 3 host Fiona Talkington, get a chance to sit in on the recording of an installment of her popular Late Junction program.

Chapter Index

A Few Days in London: Little Radio and The Vortex

Take Five Europe: An Interview With Producer Martel Ollerenshaw

Take Five Europe: Network, Network and More Network

A Few Days in London: Little Radio and The Vortex

The first full day in London brought a rare opportunity to hear British saxophonist Iain Ballamy and Norwegian multi-instrumentalist Stian Carstensen—who work together as Little Radio—deliver 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, Food—another Anglo-Norwegian collaboration, this time with percussionist Thomas Strønen, 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 Mengelberg—sadly, suffering from the increasing ravages of Alzheimer's disease—managed 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 standard—played, 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.


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