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.



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.


Record of the month: “Spring Rain” by Samuel Blaser

Samuel Blaser's Spring RainBlaser trills and sways with a wonderful, inebriated tone
Samuel’s opening notes of ‘Jesus Maria’ emit a tone of skewed warmth, imperfect but aglow. What follows is an almost heartbreaking conversation between Blaser, Russ Lossing whose piano notes fall as clear spring raindrops, and the ghostly double bass of Drew Gress. Gerald Cleaver locks into this sensitivity brushing drums or rustling cymbals and I drifted into a meditation that I didn’t want to leave. It’s a gorgeous piece written by Carla Bley and was featured on the Jimmy Giuffre 3‘s album Fusion, 1961. Spring Rain is a tribute to Giuffre, specifically his now-revered, explorative work with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow and combines covers with original compositions in a conducive listen.

Lossing makes the difference in ‘Missing Mark Suetterlyn’: as Blaser trills and sways with a wonderful, inebriated tone, Russ brings the double joy of piano and keyboards (he plays Minimoog, Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer on this album). His electronic runs and chord stabs funk it up, space it out and take us into a thrilling, lawless landscape. All the time Cleaver is finding off-beats with laudable subtlety; he’s finely integrated but always notable.

A warm ’60s jazz homecoming
This track leads straight into the lucid melody of ‘Temporarily’ (another Carla Bley composition). There’s a sense of the recognisable here, like a warm ’60s jazz homecoming. Blaser hits the spot in the way a trumpet can – with soulful, cool sensibilities. Spring Rain has been directed by Robert Sadin, a classical conductor (a vital point as there are flavours of classical expressionism in Blaser’s playing) who also arranged and produced output such as Gershwin’s World by Herbie Hancock. From the musical themes to the sequencing, this feels a quality production.

I adored Blaser’s short solo ‘Homage’, its romantic grief like a modernist ‘Last Post’. If it was played with Blaser’s late manager, Izumi Uchida in mind, I can’t think of a more touching goodbye. ‘The First Snow’ is a free-for-all improv that again shows how this quartet is greater than the sum of its parts. They entangle themselves yet create space for ideas to breathe a fresh air.

Blaser: “Beautiful melodies and no boundaries”
If I’m honest I don’t find the trombone an easy listen, but the combination, especially with Lossing’s exquisite electronic touches, creates both an engaging tension and harmony. Blaser says, “I want people to know that there is jazz, blues, classical music, beautiful melodies and no boundaries,” and maybe that’s why I like this album. However I also think taking Guiffre as inspiration has given Blaser permission to incorporate five interpretative covers as well as provide a fertile direction for composing.

The Giuffre 3 are now recognised for their crucial contribution to free jazz, but disbanded in 1962 after the avant-garde album Free Fall and a gig where they earned 35 cents each. I’m certain there are quite a few musicians out there now who can relate to that.

Spring Rain will tour in November and December 2015.
Whirlwind Recordings

Samuel Blaser: Trombone Man

SamuelBlaserLacPosterSamuel Blaser doesn’t mess around. The 32 year old formed the Samuel Blaser Trio with Marc Ducret and Peter Bruun six months ago and they’re already on their third tour touching down at the Festival Jazz Onze+ in Lausanne, London Jazz Festival and playing Poland and Italy in the next couple of months.

You need Sherlock Holmes to deduce which bands he was, is, or will be, performing in

In the last few months he’s toured as a duo with Ducret in Brazil (“There is an opening market there,” he says, due to the SESC cultural centres), released a CD with Consort in Motion, the international outfit that included revered drummer Paul Motion until his death in 2011 and has been to Japan with his new solo venture, “It’s like a marathon for trombone,” he tells me of the hour-long performances.

“A lot of time I don’t like the way the trombone is played…

When I ask him how he keeps his ‘creative well’ topped up, with so many projects on the go, he looks at me questioningly, “I don’t feel like I need to be inspired.” He just listens to music every day, “Yesterday I listened to…Burning Spear, Dennis Bovell [with whom Samuel also plays] then some Polish pop, and today Maria Callas, Beethoven and Joe Henderson, all kinds of music, yeah.” And it was Vinco Globokar and Berlioz that originally fired his love of trombone, “Those guys really pushed the boundaries of the instrument and that was really inspiring.” He moved into jazz through his mum’s love of the music but says, “A lot of time I don’t like the way the trombone is played…I try to keep the natural way of the trombone to express myself and to have new extended techniques.”

He refesamuelblaser3rs to his trombone as ‘her’

It’s a true romance (he refers to his trombone as ‘her’) that began after seeing marching bands when he was two years old. He couldn’t say the word, ‘trombone’, so tried to make a sliding movement to his parents then held onto his dream until he was nine when his arms were (almost) long enough to play. He progressed rapidly at the local conservatory in La Chaux-de-Fonds, winning awards, praise and a Fullbright scholarship to study in America.

“Maybe if I call myself ‘Trombone Chubby’…”

It’s when I ask whether he has to ‘compose to order’ that he remembers the tribute to Jimmy Giuffre he’s recording next year with, due to his own suggestion to Fortune Records, Ravi Coltrane. “I don’t like to record an album only with material written by someone else. I need to add my touch so that I feel it is mine,” Blaser comments. Last month saw the release of a recording made with Benoît Delbecq and Who Trio’s Gerry Hemingway that charted in Billboard’s top 50 jazz albums. “Maybe if I call myself Trombone Chubby…” he quips with reference to Trombone Shorty’s chart success.

He keeps his spirit light

It’s not all fast and plain sailing as Blaser explains, “I still cannot really break through into France and I’ve been playing with French musicians since 2002.” He also has to find a label for a solo recording made with ‘sound designer’ Martin Ruch in various rooms of the ex-DDR radio station in Berlin. He knows it’s not an easy sell, but says it with his ever-optimistic smile. It’s the Blaser secret: he doesn’t spend time on things that don’t work or he doesn’t like to do (a good manager helps) and he keeps his spirit light. While he has a smile on his face, a shiny trombone in his hands and a song in his heart, I’m sure Blaser will maintain this incredible workload and find out who he really is as a musician.

Samuel Blaser is playing London Jazz Festival (Oto Café), the 17th of November.

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