A ‘beautifully diffident’ concert from pianist Jason Moran, plus the best jazz and folk gigs of 2019

'Beautifully diffident': the jazz pianist Jason Moran
'Beautifully diffident': the jazz pianist Jason Moran

Jason Moran, Wigmore Hall ★★★★★

Jason Moran is one of a new breed of American jazz pianists that can’t be confined to playing piano alone. He curates exhibitions, he composes film scores, he’s collaborated on an installation at the Venice Biennale.

But even though all of this has won him a seat at America’s artistic top table, the man himself seems as restless and searching as ever. In his various on-stage chats, he expressed pleasure at playing at Wigmore Hall – fresh from the Beethoven Haus in Bonn, as he was keen to point out – and also anger that it’s taken so long for people of colour to make it to these hallowed halls. One got the impression of a heart and mind working at maximum stretch at every moment, ready to follow a thought into a new area of feeling, but always aware that any thought and feeling should be balanced by its opposite.

One number in particular, entitled Magnet, revealed this very human quality. It began as an exercise in creating a vast wave of sonority at the bass of the piano. This was more avant-garde “sound-art” than jazz, done with surpassing subtlety of touch, and swelling to an oceanic climax. Just as it threatened to become oppressive, Moran released the tension by flying to the top of the keyboard and launching a filigree of tinkling decoration. This resolved itself into a repeating phrase, while below a loping bass pattern took shape. Suddenly we were in the midst of a strolling 12-bar blues.

That may seem too many contraries to embrace in one musical statement, but as Moran showed time and again, wit and humour can bring even the most stark opposites into amicable dialogue. Not every number ranged so widely; in fact, most seemed to be rooted in a particular idiom, such as the vamping stride patterns of Carolina Shout. Moran played us this classic in homage to his great forebears James P Johnson and Teddy Wilson, but (as always) he tested the limits of the genre, injecting it with new harmonic pungency and astonishing rhythmic surprise.

Here, as in his beautifully diffident lyrical ballads, Moran showed an exact sense of when an idea had run its course, a gift that’s much to do with tact as musical intelligence. In so many ways, Moran’s wonderful gig showed us that, at bottom, musical and human virtues are the same. IH

Jason Moran’s latest album, Music for Joan Jonas, is released on Yes Records.

 Marquis Hill Credit: Todd Rosenberg Photography

Marquis Hill Blacktet, Turner Sims, Southampton ★★★★☆

“You’ve got to have a message, you’ve got to have meaning”, says young Chicago-born trumpeter, composer and bandleader Marquis Hill about his music-making, in a recent interview for Downbeat magazine. The name of his own quintet suggests what its meaning will be: a celebration of the African-American roots of his art form. In the band’s first number, that message was finessed by a pre-recorded rap over a slouching groove, telling us that hip hop and jazz both grow from the same tap-root.

This could have been a warning that we were in for an evening of hard-hitting jazz-as-social-commentary, of the kind we hear from other American musicians such as Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah. Instead we were offered something warmly mellifluous tinged with spiritual aspiration, an area of feeling echoed in such titles as “Ego vs. Spirit”.  The focus of that feeling was Hill’s own beautifully pure sound, reminiscent of Freddie Hubbard. He rarely ventured towards extremes, often launching forth in meditative roulades that kept curling back to their starting point. Several numbers were in the form of surprisingly (and enjoyably) ingratiating ballads, with his trumpet and saxophonist Braxton Cook’s two lines intertwined in seductive descending lines. The echoes of early Ellington were unmistakable.

More intriguing were those numbers that ventured closer to hip hop. The repeating grooves of hip hop and the wayward freedom of jazz would seem to be like oil and water, but this quintet fused them in a way one could never have predicted. Key to this mysterious alchemy was the quintet’s superb vibes player Joel Ross, who had a way of launching a repeating groove only to shift its outlines note by note like a potter moulding clay, until at length we found ourselves in quite a different harmonic space. One had a sense of floating free, a feeling augmented by the delicious rhythmic subtlety of the quintet.

Moments of Flow was a fine example of the way the players conspired together to create this. Bass player Junius Paul set up a solo groove, establishing a pattern soon contradicted by drummer Jonathan Pinson’s seething mass of beats, and Ross’s furious yet warmly euphonious energy on vibes. Finally Hill and Cook, having stood to one side, entered the fray with an innocent melody, which floated serenely over the mêlée. Hill’s more politically engaged colleagues might say his mellifluous celebration of his heritage avoids hard questions, but its charm is undeniable. IH

The Marquis Hill Blacktet’s new album Modern Flows vol. 2 is released on Black Unlimited Music Group

Jazz veteran Roy Ayers

Roy Ayers, Union Chapel  ★★★☆☆

Singer, composer and virtuoso vibraphone player Roy Ayers has now been a “living legend” for so long it’s hard to remember a time when he was anything else. Certainly, not many in the surprisingly young audience at the Union Chapel could have known him when he launched out as a straight-ahead post-bop vibes player in the Sixties, or in his prime in the Seventies when he was a leading light in the jazz-funk movement, or later in that Eighties fusion of disco, funk and jazz known as “acid jazz” that was scorned by jazz purists but loved by many. Since then, Ayers has enjoyed the special fame that comes from having more hits sampled by hip-hoppers than any other musician alive.

The trouble with being a living legend is that you hardly have to do anything except appear for the crowd to go wild. Such was the case on Saturday night when the 78-year-old Ayers limped on stage, looking very much as if an arthritic hip was giving him trouble, surrounded by his quartet. It’s interesting that nowhere in the publicity were these players named, which seemed ungenerous, as it was mostly their huge efforts that made the show what it was.

Mark Adams (I think it was) zipped from one electronic keyboard to another, teasing away at the same high “blue note” figure before plunging down the instrument, the left hand twitching at the pitch-bend control to give it that extra itch of horniness. The bass player’s sound was overwhelming – the sound mix as a whole left a lot to be desired – but his solos were terrific, reminding me of John Scofield in his jazz-funk days. Even more impressive was the drummer, whose one solo spot was astonishing, his hands and feet whipping up a storm big enough for three percussionists. This was the evening’s one genuine moment of frenzy.

To see all this overtly testosterone-fuelled energy felt strangely nostalgic, a feeling sharpened by the support band, a quartet centred round young singer-songwriter Bryony Jarman-Pinto. This too had a certain old-fashioned funkiness, emanating mostly from the side-slipping keyboard harmonies and Latin percussion. But it felt squeaky-clean and sweetly sentimental compared with the unabashed horniness of the main act.

As for the man at the centre of the evening, he’s now more the roguish uncle than the love god of yore, eyeing the front row of the audience appreciatively, and taking playful swipes at the drummers’ cymbals. When Ayers suddenly leaped up and started flailing at the vibes, he seemed to have all the subtlety of a man tenderising a side of beef. And yet as one listened it became clear a vast well of experience lay behind the apparent casualness.

Ayers knows just how to drop a phrase into a silence for maximum effect, and how to keep a riff going long after another player would have run out of steam.  It’s apt that Ayers’s best-known song, which he sung here to rapturous applause, is “Don’t Stop the Feeling”. IH

Kenny Garrett Quintet, Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club ★★★☆☆

Acclaimed American jazz saxophonists are like London buses: you see none for a while and then three arrive in quick succession. We’ve seen Josh Redman and Branford Marsalis in recent weeks, in terrific sets. Now, it’s the turn of Kenny Garrett, famous among other things for making his debut with the Ellington band, and being a sidesman for Miles Davis for some five years.

As his gig on Wednesday night at Ronnie Scott’s reminded us, Garrett’s 30-year career has made him adept in many styles. We heard lazy rock back-beats, hectic bop numbers and one slinky Latin number rarely parcelled neatly into separate numbers, but mixed and mingled in epic 20-minute pieces. Often these would dwindle away in cymbal washes and piano harmony, only to surge back to life again with a brand-new idea.

These epic-sized, loosely structured forms have become almost the norm these days, and the large scale goes hand-in-hand with a spiritual, questing quality, the indeterminate harmony and exotic sounds betokening distant horizons. There was something of that quality in this gig, particularly in those moments where Latin percussionist Rudy Bird echoed Garrett’s melody in a high falsetto voice, and engaged in intriguing rhythmic games with drummer Samuel Laviso. One felt a touch of that groovy, spacey quality one remembers from bands such as Weather Report.

The first number Haynes Here launched off in exactly that mood, with pianist Vernell Brown’s urgent side-slipping chords and Laviso’s seething cymbal-work summoning a feeling of strenuous aspiration. But Kenny Garrett’s music is too rooted in driving funky rhythms and hummable melodic hooks to ascend very far into astral regions. He’s a populist at heart, and this piece soon developed a more conventionally rock energy. 

The following Latin number traced an even more familiar chordal groove, which allowed Brown to spin an endless self-renewing line of wiry coiled licks. Some pianists need to pause to think as they’re improvising, but not Brown; the ideas just come thick and fast. Garrett is different. He likes to hang on to a little melodic nugget once he’s hit on it, and wind up the excitement by repeating it at ever-greater altitudes. It’s exciting on a visceral level, but in truth not so interesting musically.

In the final two numbers, taken from the recent album Do your Dance, Garrett and the quintet summoned an irresistibly funky dance vibe. It was here, with bigger ambitions set aside, that the quintet seemed most at home. IH

The Kenny Garrett Quintet is in residence at Ronnie Scott’s until 16 March. Tickets: 020 7439 0747; ronniescotts.co.uk. Returns only.

​Branford Marsalis Quartet, Barbican, London EC2 ★★★★☆

Jazz lovers really have been blessed lately at London’s Barbican Centre, with two top-class American saxophone-led quartets appearing within a fortnight. Sartorially they were both tip-top, though Josh Redman’s quartet last month was perhaps marginally sharper-suited. That quartet’s musical style was similarly elegant, whereas in last night’s blistering 100-minute set from the Branford Marsalis Quartet there was an enjoyable mismatch between the Saks Fifth Avenue elegance of everyone’s attire, and the music-making.

This was at times a display of testosterone-fuelled energy, the like of which I’ve rarely seen on the Barbican or any other stage. Jazz may be one of the last spaces in the Western world where raw masculinity can be displayed without drawing accusations of being “toxic”, so in addition to its many other joys this gig felt pleasingly transgressive. The wild energy appeared with startling abruptness in the opening number, composed by bassist Eric Revis. Marsalis soon shattered the opening melody into a blizzard of wiry little repeating phrases, each one caught and echoed by drummer Justin Faulkner in a hectic call-and-response game. Adding to this swelling tide of energy, like rushing tributaries joining a fast-flowing river, were the ever-denser harmonies of pianist Joey Calderazzo and a thrumming wall-of-bass from Revis himself.

One could only watch and listen in amazement, particularly at the sheer speed of thought and execution, and the stunning force of Faulkner’s drumsticks. It was the kind of display that should have brought cheers and foot-stamping, but in fact the audience was too stunned to respond. Then without warning the quartet eased into Calderazzo’s ingratiatingly smooth, relaxed Latin number Cianna. The contrast was so extreme it was almost comic, and it gave a warning that the evening might be full of abrupt stylistic switches – which indeed it was.

This was the moment for Marsalis to show what a seductively warm tone he makes, and how much enjoyment he gets from a straightforwardly symmetrical, four-square melody, and from shaping his solo riffs so that they soar up to the key-note with almost classical predictability. This wasn’t just a quirk of his style; one noticed a certain four-square quality too in the melody of Calderazzo’s Conversation Among the Ruins, though thankfully this dissolved away as soon as the solo breaks began.

More satisfying overall were those numbers where invigorating surprise was there from the off, as in Andrew Hill’s obstreperously off-kilter Snake Hip Waltz, which prompted everyone, particularly Revis, to some pleasingly virtuoso breaks. Most unexpected of all was the Quartet’s version of Sunny Side of the Street, which turned this most cheerful of numbers into a trudging New Orleans-style funeral march. Virtuosity, wit and relaxed charm all came together. IH

The Branford Marsalis Qt’s new album The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul is out now on Okeh Records

Joshua Redman Quartet, Barbican, London EC2 ★★★★★

Joshua Redman, perhaps the leading jazz saxophonist-composer of the age, is a picture of louche sophistication: tall, pencil-thin, elegant. He schmoozes the audience with pleasant delicacy, speaks with almost finicky precision, and – like most visiting American jazzmen – apologises for the state of his nation’s politics.

Then he starts to play, and instantly that willowy figure becomes convulsed with energy, one knee jerking skywards whenever he lets rip with a particularly pungent saxophone honk. Now and then, he breaks off to utter a brief holler, as if intoxicated by the excitement of it all.

It must be said that he had plenty to be excited about, at Monday night’s Barbican gig. Redman appeared as part of the quartet he formed four years ago to celebrate the legacy of the wonderful Old and New Dreams, a late-Seventies quartet that included his father Dewey as well as trumpeter Don Cherry and bassist Charlie Haden. The genius looming over their music-making was the great pioneer of free jazz Ornette Coleman, with whom all four musicians played.

Given all that, one might have expected a more exploratory free-jazz feel. In fact the overriding characteristic of this wonderful evening was its super-honed, energising discipline, applied to musical materials that were blazingly clear-cut. In New Year, composed by the quartet’s bassist Scott Colley, the main melody had a defiant, obstreperous cheerfulness, a tone one used to hear often in jazz but now alas is all too rare. In itself, the melody seemed almost throwaway, but how interesting it became in the hands of these four musicians. Redman and cornetist Ron Miles had a witty way of allowing the energy to peter out of the phrase, trailing away in a sort of parody of free-jazz aimlessness, before bringing it back full force. 

In Joshua Redman’s The Rest, the tune itself had a superb chiselled eloquence, which at first fixed a mood of lonely melancholy. Then, in a move that was characteristic of the evening, the piece burgeoned beyond its restrained opening, the wild keening of Redman and Miles born aloft on a seething patter of drum-beats from Brian Blade, and an eloquently leaping bass-line from Scott Colley. The piece that best captured the evening’s fusion of application and anarchy entwined was Unanimity, a piece that aptly enough began in a perfect unanimous fast-bop melody before surging upwards and outwards to a tumultuous finish that drove the audience wild. IH

Joshua Redman Quartet’s album Still Dreaming is out now on Nonesuch

Roaming Roots Revue: Abbey Road 50th Anniversary, Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow  ★★★★☆

In September, it will be 50 years since The Beatles released the last album they ever recorded together, Abbey Road. The celebrations of this milestone began in earnest with a superb concert in Glasgow, which featured an impressive array of musical talent, including KT Tunstall, Roddy Hart & The Lonesome Fire and The Staves.

The revue, which Roddy Hart curates and presents annually, is held as part of the massive folk roots festival Celtic Connections. This year, in honour of the symphonic nature of Abbey Road, the show boasted, for the first time, a full orchestra (named, appropriately enough, the Sun King Orchestra) under the baton of John Logan.

The first half of the gig showcased original material by the various assembled artists, including Scottish Highland musician Lomond Campbell, You Tell Me (aka Sarah Hayes of Admiral Fallow and Peter Brewis of Field Music) and Phil Campbell (lead singer of The Temperance Movement). In truth, this set would have made for a strong festival event on its own, but it was a mere taster for the excellent Beatles tribute to come.

Part two of the show kicked off, as does Abbey Road itself, with the emblematic late-Sixties hit Come Together. Sung with gusto by KT Tunstall, supported admirably by both The Lonesome Fire and Logan’s orchestra, it was a rollicking opener and a harbinger of the memorable set to come.

Lomond Campbell’s sensitive vocals combined beautifully with subtle orchestration on Something, while You Tell Me offered a lively rendition of the jauntily homicidal Maxwell’s Silver Hammer. Fine beginnings though these were, no one was likely to be livelier on the night than the spritely Phil Campbell, and so it proved. In a barnstorming performance of Oh! Darling, he resembled, not so much his Welsh namesake (former lead guitarist with Motörhead), as a young Bobby Gillespie inhabiting the over-active body of an even younger Mick Jagger.

In a neat moment of humour, Scott MacKay (drummer with The Lonesome Fire) made his live singing debut with Octopus’s Garden (the more famous of the two songs that Ringo Starr wrote for The Beatles). This, followed by fine outings for such Abbey Road greats as Here Comes the Sun, You Never Give Me Your Money and Golden Slumbers, took us well on our way to the heights of KT Tunstall’s Janet Joplin-esque vocals on The End and a deservedly rapturous standing ovation. MB

Scott Hamilton Quartet, Pizza Express Jazz Club  ★★★★☆

Jazz these days is all about “breaking boundaries.” At many jazz gigs you could be forgiven for thinking you’d wondered into some leftfield experimental venue by mistake. Laptops and exotic Balkan wind instruments rub shoulders with saxophones. Everyone plays only their own material, and the jazz standards that used to be the bedrock of the art are becoming as rare as snow in May.  

For jazz fans bewildered by these developments, Scott Hamilton and his quartet come as soothing balm. As their gig at Pizza Express Jazz Club last night reminded us, they play nothing but standards, which they know like the backs of their hands, even though Hamilton is amusingly forgetful about their names.

As for the form of each piece, it’s fair to say it was formulaic – but the great virtue of a formula is that you know exactly what to expect, which is a pleasure in itself. Hamilton would launch off with a solo introduction, and then the other three players would sidle in as he offered up the melody, before pianist John Pearce took over for a solo spot. He would then hand over to bassist Dave Green, and finally drummer Steve Brown interjected some riffs, interspersed with some musings from the others, before a nicely fashioned coda wound things up.

The mould may have been unchanging, but these superb players filled it with deliciously stylish inventions. Pearce didn’t dazzle us with pianistic pyrotechnics, instead playing tightly curled and elegant riffs which felt lazily free and purposeful at once, with just a touch more earthiness in the evening’s one blues number, Blue Hodge. Green’s syncopated leaps in Lover Come back to Me seized the ear, but he didn’t maintain them for long. Similarly Dave Brown’s rim-shot games and witty off-tempo thwacks were maintained just long enough for us to register them. There was never that obsessive playing with an idea that you get with some groups – everything was done with a light touch.

As for Hamilton himself, the insinuating way he caressed the phrases in I Can’t Get Started, adding just a touch of paprika here and there in the form of an unexpected bass honk, was a constant delight – but even more engaging was the sly way bassist and pianist wrong-footed each other, just for fun. In all the evening was a delight, and a reminder that nothing in art is so liberating as a formula. IH

The Scott Hamilton Quartet returns to the Pizza Express Jazz Club April 12-15. Tickets: 020 7439 4962; pizzaexpresslive.com. Their album Dean Street Nights is released on Pizza Express Live Jazz label.