N.E.W. at The Vortex, 14/3/11

Steve Noble, by Scott McMillan

The Japanese trumpeter Toshinori Kondo was supposed to be at the Vortex this evening, but for understandable reasons, he couldn’t it make it. The venue offered refunds on the tickets, and some seemed to take them up on it, judging by the empty seats dotted around the place. Those people are fools. For in Kondo’s place, the superb improvising trio N.E.W. were given two sets. After his duo with Arthur Doyle at Cafe Oto, this meant I’d be seeing Steve Noble play drums for the second night in a row. That probably isn’t the first time that has happened to me. After all, Steve Noble and John Edwards (who is the E to Noble’s N in the trio’s name) are the two musicians I’ve seen in concert more than anyone else. I’d call them the country’s finest rhythm section, but that would be doing them a massive disservice – for what they do on their respective instruments is about so much more than rhythm, it is about dynamics, about feel, about listening, about texture. And, because even given that, what pairing can you point to anywhere in the world that is better?

John Edwards, by Scott McMillan

Having said that, I’ve actually never seen Noble and Edwards play with Alex Ward (the W) before, and I was really looking forward to it, Kondo or no Kondo. Ward is probably better known as a clarinettist, but in N.E.W. he plays electric guitar. And I’m not talking about your Grant Green-style jazz electric guitar here; this is the jazz electric guitar of Sonny Sharrock, of John McLaughlin in his wilder moments, or even of Thurston Moore – as much rock and noise as jazz. So, this trio promised excitement – and it duly delivered. Right from the off, Ward was hacking away at his guitar, jagged shards of sounds flying off in all directions, and Edwards was disrespecting his (amplified) instrument by attacking it with the end of his bow. Noble’s performance initially lacked some of the subtlety and variety of the previous evening, but then again he had to hammer at his kit here just to be heard. He dragged them into a succession of deep repetitive grooves, making this sound at times a little like a higher voltage version of another power trio, the Tony Williams Lifetime (trading the crunching stabs of Larry Young’s organ for the grind of Edwards’s bass). For a moment, I swear they even fleetingly – too fleetingly – flirted with Can’s “Mother Sky”.

Alex Ward, by Scott McMillan

The second set started quieter and noticeably better balanced (the bass up a little, the guitar a little down). Ward was scribbling away with the end of his bottleneck, while Edwards was just forcing his bow against the bass, producing splintering creaks. This enabled Noble to rummage through his arsenal, coming up with a succession of textural weapons – scraped drumsticks, rubber mallets, and upturned cymbals pressed against his drums. Finally, he settled on a pair of cowbells – one attached to the kit, the other used as a drumstick – for the final assault, propelling the trio into a no-nonsense boogie war, which actually had them grinning by the end. They hadn’t expected to be playing two sets tonight, but it looked like that particular groove could have carried them all night. And us. And, indeed, many more. Even given the circumstances, a band this good should never be playing to an under-capacity Vortex. If you were somewhere else, you missed out.

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Steve Lehman Octet at the Vortex, January 2011

Steve Lehman, by Scott McMillan

This was my first trip to the Vortex this year. It was also Steve Lehman’s. In fact, this was his first ever UK date. Given that fact, and the acclaim his work has been met with in recent years, it wasn’t surprising that the Dalston venue was completely sold out. And those tickets had been sold to a noticeably different crowd than usual; the average age can’t have been much more than 30. Perhaps because the Steve Lehman Octet’s 2009 album Travail, Transformation And Flow combines some clever jazz arrangements and classical theory with noticeably more modern elements. Influences from hip-hop and electronic music feature strongly, with the superb drummer Tyshawn Sorey providing the precise, intricate, and even funky rhythmic frameworks which kept young heads nodding in this packed venue all evening.

The cerebral stuff first: Lehman’s arrangements delve deep into ideas of harmony and dissonance, tone and timbre, creating these shimmering pieces that just seem to hang suspended in the air like clouds. “As Things Change (I Remain The Same)” and “Dub” both have these long pulsating vibraphone traces being joined by rising columns of alto and tenor sax, trumpet and trombone, all mixing together colourfully, before dissipating into the evening air. The melody lines can be equally challenging; the ending of “Alloy” saw Lehman and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson engaging in furious conversation, completing each others’ phrases, talking over each other, before finally coming to an agreement by the piece’s end. Despite the complexity, the band are so well drilled that, they can still collectively spin and stop on a dime.

Jonathan Finlayson, by Scott McMillan

But underneath all of this theory, there is a youthful dynamism. Lehman is far from being “just” a jazz musician, and has experimented with Ableton and Max/MSP in his work – and it shows even in his acoustic compositions. The rhythms sound borrowed from electronic music forms, the crisp beats almost sounding programmed at times, the sort of thing that would be impossible to play – too fast, too intricate – without the likes of Tyshawn Sorey in the traps. Sections of “Alloy” and “No Neighbourhood Rough Enough” (“What, you don’t think I’ve seen rough neighbourhoods?” goofed Lehman) charged along like high energy drum’n’bass. Their songbook includes the Wu-Tang Clan, and they blasted through GZA’s “In The World Today” from Liquid Swords, the familiar loping rhythm emerging through a haze of tangled horns.

Last time I saw the Octet (at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam last year), Sorey was still on sabbatical from the group, working on his masters degree in composition, studying with the likes of Anthony Braxton – as if his Koan album hadn’t already marked him out as being a composer of some stature. He has now returned to the fold, and he announced this fact pretty early on in the evening, interrupting the first piece with a brutish WALLOP on his cymbal. Aside from his dextrous handling of those aforementioned rhythms, it was they way he mixed these outbursts of violence with moments of extreme delicacy which caught the ear. During one of the two performances of the highlight “Waves”, he managed to beat on his cymbals like a butcher tenderising meat, before dismantling his drumkit and providing a diaphonous backdrop by simply blowing on his snare drum. At another point he played by tracing his fingertips across the skin of his drums, listening intently to the soft vibrations he was producing; you could have heard a pin drop in the Vortex. Even after the band had taken their bow at the end of the second set, and were departing for the last time, he still couldn’t resist giving a cymbal another almighty WALLOP with his fist on the way out. A rising young star in an already sparkling lineup, let’s hope it isn’t too long before we see Sorey, as well as Lehman and the rest of this octet, back in the country.

Mark Shim by Scott McMillan

The Thing at The Vortex, 29/11/10

The Thing

During the gap between the first and second pieces that The Thing played tonight, a buzzing with-energy Mats Gustafsson was welcoming us to this first date of the European tour. He called it the “Fuck This, Fuck That” tour, swinging his arm as he said the word “fuck”, his ring catching one of the metal pillars which keep the venue upright. DING. He stopped mid-sentence, and raised an eye-brow. Huh. He hit it again. DING. Interesting. Ten minutes later, while The Thing were in full flight, Paal Nilsen-Love started producing an array of strange sounds from his kit, scraping at cymbals, and banging on rims. Gustafsson thought for a second, before answering him by taking the horn out of his mouth and hitting the pillar again. DING. It raised a chuckle at the time, but I’m using it here in a serious fashion to illustrate just how good The Thing are: no matter how loud, or violent, or freewheeling it can seem at times, there is always a control, a sensitivity, a thoughtfulness. Three great musicians producing, reacting to and mastering a maelstrom of sound. Continue reading

Vandermark 5 and Atomic at Vortex Jazz Club, 16/09/10

Atomic

Two variations on a theme at a packed-out Vortex in Dalston. Both the Vandermark Five and Atomic are long-running quintets who mix more straight-up scored jazz compositions with sections of fiery free improvisation, and neither of them play in the UK often enough for my liking. Given their relative celebrity, it wasn’t even obvious who the headliner would be – I figured the Vandermark 5 would shade it, but it was they who took the stage first, much to their evident amusement – I guess being the warmup act is something that doesn’t happen too often to Ken Vandermark.

Vandermark 5

Which is unsurprising given just how tight, powerful and boundary-pushing this band are. Aside from saxophonist Vandermark himself (doubling up on more restrained clarinet), the importance of Fred Lonberg-Holm can’t be understated – his cello and electronics gives the band a most unconventional edge. They kicked off with their song for Gyorgy Ligeti, “Friction”, arco bass and cello drone leading straight into the first blistering Vandermark solo of the night, real heavyweight Trane-style improvisation. They all locked together in what almost sounded like a post-rock riff before a loud, squally finale. Aside from this, most of the pieces they played were new ones, worked up their European tour, stately ensemble pieces meeting some tight funk and some avant-garde electronics. Set closer “Leap Revisited” really highlighted Lonberg-Holm’s work, transforming his cello almost into a howling and wailing electric guitar (check this clip from earlier in the tour), before the band knotted together around a sick bass/drum groove from Kent Kessler and Tim Daisy. It ended with the two horns dancing around each other with extraordinary deftness. And then huge applause.

While I can’t recall the last time Atomic played here, I’m pretty familiar with the work of two of the group members. Drummer Paal Nilsen-Love and bass player Ingebrigt Håker Flaten are the rhythm section for Smalltown Superjazzz’s Scandinavian sensations The Thing, where they play behind Mats Gustafsson’s lung-shredding saxophone excursions. Here they were forced into more conventional areas, but no matter how straight the lines, Nilsen-Love always seemed able to find unexpected angles. He spent the entirety of one tune disrupting the piece’s natural rhythm by sticking tight to the off-beat, while a later piece saw him playing at twice, maybe even four times the speed you’d expect, forcing a momentum. The soloing perhaps only rarely touched the heights of earlier in the evening, Håker Flaten almost pulling the strings of his bass in one huge, thwonking episode, but there was much to admire still. Not least of all in an Arkestra-esque finale, trumpet and saxophone playing a repetitive riff over the deepest of grooves, one that was ringing in my head all the way home.