Swiss artists @EFG London Jazz Festival 2015

EFG_London Jazz logoThe EFG London Jazz Festival is a big annual affair running for ten days in the middle of November. This year Swiss and Swiss-based artists, represented by Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin and Mobile, Elina Duni, Samuel Blaser, Basel Rajoub, Marc Perrenoud, Christophe Fellay and the Russian/Swiss collaboration, Jazzator, had well-attended gigs (two were sold out). Phew. Clashing with big-name artists, and the overwhelming number of events can be an issue at such festivals.
The UK can be a tough and weird market

Consider this list of musicians – you couldn’t get a more diverse bunch. There isn’t a Swiss sound like there was a Norwegian one, but the artists are building individual reputations via their quality. The UK can be a tough and weird market, but when people hear something they like they will always give a warm and enthusiastic response.

Nik Bärtsch has a definite fanbase and had a two-day residency at King’s Place as part of the Minimalism Unwrapped season with Mobile Extended and Ronin Rhythm Clan. I saw the latter on the opening night of the festival with an added 3-part brass section and guitarist Manuel Troller, whose sensitive but spirited playing made him a natural part of the clan. I first heard Ronin two years ago in the same hall. I was entranced by their intense yet grooving sound and still am.

You live for such moments with Ronin

nik_baertschs_feat_roninThere were the sparkles of Nik’s compelling piano work and superior conversations between the Ronin members whilst other phases had the extended band heading into an alt-funk fest with James Brown’s spirit shimmying around the room (well, almost). But ‘Modul 32’ was the highlight for me: Kaspar Rast played a small shaker – no fuss, just simple but killer in its repetition, and clever in the textural canvas it gave saxophonist, Sha, and Manuel on which to paint subtle but deeply personal musical thoughts. You live for such moments with Ronin.

He can evoke memories of J. J. Johnson

©Alex TroeschThe small, shabby Club Inégales is in the bowels of an office building but was set aglow by the quality of the musicians in Samuel Blaser‘s quartet. I’ve already waxed lyrical about the wisdom of pianist Russ Lossing’s playing on Spring Rain, Blaser’s tribute to Jimmy Guiffre. He approaches music as an horizon, it’s not about him, but the entire landscape. I love his touch. Equally fine are bassist Masatoshi Kamaguchi and legendary Gerry Hemingway. A key drummer on the avant garde circuit he caresses and cajoles rhythm out of his kit, able to be economical yet inventive. I particularly like Blaser when he drawls his sound as if part of a deep South funeral march, his soulfulness peeping through. He can evoke memories of J. J. Johnson then veer off elsewhere. It was a promising show cut short by the venue’s format of a final set improvising with the house band.

 

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Luckily I’d got to hear the crisp interplay between this quartet at Adventures in Sound, a feast of music recorded for BBC Radio’s Jazz on 3 programme earlier that day. Each of them also improvised with renowned UK artists such as John Edwards (bass) and rising keyboardist, Elliott Galvin (in photo). Unfortunately it meant I missed Marc Perrenoud‘s set as part of ‘Seriously Talented’ – an afternoon of musicians that had been on Serious’ Take Five course. The Clore Ballroom of the Royal Festival Hall was packed and I heard that Marc’s joyful and bonded trio were an uplifting addition to the line up.

Elina’s expression taps into our universal goosebumps

Elina Duni Quartet Elina Duni Quartet are equally notable and their Dallëndyshe album had good reviews, one in The Guardian. Live, Norbert Pfammatter stands out as a sublime drummer. His pulse-like work encourages a sensual interplay between vocals and rhythm. There is an almost mantra-like progression as Elina leads us through the emotive themes of Albanian folk songs. Lyrics such as, “My dear boy in front of the flag oh, my heart’s engulfed in worrisome flames,” (from ‘Me on a Hill, You on a Hill’) feel horribly relevant and even if they weren’t Elina’s expression taps into our universal goosebumps. At first her tone seems warm and smooth, but then a quiver or cry renders me helplessly emotional.

Colin Vallon is simply captivating, and fierce too, making his mark. Along with new, fearless bassist, Lukas Traxel, they stand their ground at the side of Elina’s power. I like the brave move the quartet made of paying great respect to the Albanian folk tradition whilst interlacing it with a form of ethereal jazz. It left the audience spellbound.

richmixbaselrajoubnov15_26It was a similar story for another Swiss émigré. The concert of Basel Rajoub‘s Soriana (‘Our Syria’) was the evening after the Paris attacks and as the review Classical Source expressed, it could not have made for a more eloquent night of music. Made so by the skill and personality of Basel in a magical alchemy with the type of welcoming audiences that can be found in London.

 

 A unique view of free music

Jazzator2_M&FNov2015Finally, Jazzator are a Russian/Swiss quartet with quirky intentions conveyed with talent. I particularly liked saxophonist Oleg Mariakhin who delicately integrated himself with the vivid vocals of Marina Sobyanina. I sensed underlying eastern folk traditions that had been pulled apart leaving ragged edges and broken threads. Drummer Sergey Balashov on drums and bass player Maximilian Grossenbacher provided an ear-pricking rhythm section, and together Jazzator offered a unique view of free music. One UK reviewer declared them a highlight of the festival.

 

Grand Pianoramax : SOUNDWAVE LP on Mental Groove Records

Update 02.2016: “Soundwave”, the fifth album of US/Swiss trio Grand Pianoramax will be released internationally on 29 January by the German Word and Sound label. Grand Pianormax will also be playing at Cully Jazz Festival on the 08.04.2016. Take this opportunity to read our review again!

photoaccueilsite2Reading over my notes taken while listening to the latest Grand Pianoramax LP just released on Mental Groove Records, the word ‘bouncy’ makes a frequent appearance. This may seem a trite concept to use when describing a band that over the years has become known as the Swiss heavyweight supergroup of post jazz, art rock and hip hop. But it does go to show that the aim of being “lighter, brighter, more fun” – to quote bandleader Leo Tardin – has been accomplished.

A fresh and spontaneous approach

Produced and mixed by ‘pugnacious’ drummer, Dom Burkhalter, the LP was recorded in his studio in an almost live situation with a fresh and spontaneous approach. “We wanted to keep it direct and imperfect somehow: upright piano with creaky pedals, old Fender Rhodes, analogue synths – a chilled attitude, nothing too perfect” explains Tardin. Following on from the Big Easy EP released last May, SOUNDSCAPE continues the “more accessible, less dark” theme that the band had already prepared us for. And why not? Nothing wrong with a bit of sunny Steely Dan-inspired melodies to help the foot-tapping along even when you’re an experimental bunch of musical giants.

There’s as much rule-breaking here as there is on the earlier ‘darker’ albums

But to define the LP simply in terms of fluffy adjectives is far from half the story. Yes, it’s the perfect soundtrack for a sun-roof-down drive along the south of France, but there are challenging twists and turns around every corner. Tempos come and go, unsuspecting chopped up beats hit you in the face, lyrics are sharp and cutting – in brief, there’s as much rule-breaking here as there is on the earlier ‘darker’ albums. Tardin is keen to emphasize:   “It’s actually easier to be dark and dramatic than it is to be simple but solid. This is not straight music, there’s experimentation happening on every track. ‘No Doubt’, for example, is essentially a disco track set to a very unusual 7/4 beat”.

Fans of his pretty, lyrical touch will not be disappointed

There’s a good ratio of vocal and instrumental tracks here, the latter giving space to more journeying on behalf of the keyboards. The old Fender Rhodes gets quite a bashing on ‘Tight Rope’ recalling a funky mid 70s Herbie Hancock/George Duke style that suits Tardin rather well and could do with further exploration in the future. Fans of his pretty, lyrical touch will not be disappointed, there are some gorgeous sweeping moments where being carried away on the wave of Tardin’s dexterous style is nothing other than a pleasure.

Charismatic experimentation and radio-friendly sparkle

But essentially, Grand Pianoramax are known for their foray into beats and hip hop which Black Cracker‘s edgy, poetic vocal style encapsulates so well. Totally enveloping and slightly less razor sharp than usual, his timbre is just perfectly suited to the jazzy, understated, choppy groove. Nothing in his lyrical content is ever over-done or insincere. The trio are famous for being a powerhouse live act, all bark AND bite, but on this album the slightly more laid back, crossover attitude is in no way a detracting dumbing down. On the contrary, warm and colorful like the cover, it’s an album full of charismatic experimentation and radio-friendly possibility.

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Band line up:

Leo Tardin – piano & keyboards
Black Cracker – vocals
Dom Burkhalter – drums

Forthcoming live gigs:

28th Nov, 2015: Moods, Zürich, CH
27th Dec, 2015: Bee Flat, Bern, CH

Kaos Protokoll, punk-jazz provocators

Photo by Brigitte Fässler

Photo by Brigitte Fässler

Swiss trio, Kaos Protocoll are fond of sweeping statements: « Punk-jazz provocators », « No concept as concept », « No track ends as it begins » – these are just some of their cheeky mantras aimed at focussing your listening toward the left-field attitude they strive to cultivate. Freshly released on the Prolog Music label, Questclamationmarks is their second LP which the band describe as being more mature, complex and mysterious than its previous little brother, largely inspired by a recent tour across Eastern Europe and Russia during which they excelled in their live performances, honing their various radical free-jazz, funk and electronic influences.

 

« Rough in attitude but very well structured »

The driving wheel behind this LP is British pianist and composer, Django Bates, a familiar name on the Swiss German jazz scene since his appointment as Professor of Jazz at HKB school in Bern. His role as producer came about after stumbling across the band during a live gig. Vague inflections of Loose Tubes-inspired mayhem sit well next to the chaotic, busy style that has become the band’s trademark, especially appreciated in live situ. But Prof Bates’ presence is gratefully felt here in the clarity of composition, arrangement and production, resulting in a body of work that is « rough in attitude but very well structured » to quote bass player Benedikt Wieland. The beast has not been totally tamed, just steered in a direction where the mish-mash of influences and barrage of sound have been refined, organised and, to some degree, conceptualized. As a result, it’s more of an unpredictable but elegant carousel ride, rather than a dirty punk collision course.

Enthusiastic, clean and fresh

A good case in point is the track « Ein Stück zum Mitsingen » – lots going on here: crazy bebop singing melodies, pounding wall of sound beats, furious sax à la Greg Osby, all chunky and funky with a definite giggle going on, wrapped up in a perfect package and just the right duration for the laugh to tickle. The sound is enthusiastic, clean and fresh. “Maybe you” is equally playful with its hide and seek game of tempo and style. Unusual, but not unsuitable German rap makes an appearance in “Pathos Ratlos featuring Baze”, a place where wobbly jazz synths and broken beat melodies suit the grave but not too serious poetic narrative. Winding down the ride is the melodica-friendly “Wiegelied”, a warm and soothing lullaby ending their enigmatic, confident journey.

A mercurial piece inspired by their concert in the secret Russian city

A short film has just been released to accompany “In the Secret City”, a mercurial piece inspired by their concert in the secret Russian city, K26. Benedikt Weiland explains: “A man runs through the secret city at night. He sees scenes that are independent of each other, very abstract and without clear identification. For example, a woman holding a flowerpot while a man is floating in the air! A horse, led by a non-recognizable prancing creature, a corpulent elderly man walks out of his house carrying a briefcase. Just as the song unravels different moods, so do the images which feature different worlds that somehow have a relationship and are linked together by the runner. The images are also a little bit chaotic, abstract and analogous to our sound!”

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Band:

Benedikt Wieland (bass, FX)

Marc Stucki (sax, melodica, FX)

Flo Reichle (drums, electronics)

 

 

Forthcoming live dates:

19/11/15 – Le Singe, Biel (CH)

20/11/15 – Jazzclub, Gera (DE)

21/11/15 – Cuba, Münster, (DE)

23/11/15 – Jazzclub, Abensberg, (DE)

24/11/15 – Waldsee, Freiburg, (DE)

27/11/15 – Moods, Zurich (CH)

28/11/15 – Jazzclub, Erfurt, (DE)

29/11/15 – Glashaus, Bayreuth, (DE)

30/11/15 – Schon Schön, Mainz, (DE)

 

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