Matt Mitchell

 

 

Vista Accumulation

Matt Mitchell, a 2015 recipient of the prestigious Doris Duke Impact Award, is one of the most in-demand pianists in jazz. As a member of Tim Berne’s Snakeoil, the Dave Douglas Quintet, Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Bird Calls, John Hollenbeck’s Large Ensemble, and the Darius Jones Quartet, among many others, he has played an integral role on a number of the most critically-acclaimed releases of the last few years.

His new release, Vista Accumulation, spends much of its time contemplating the jazz tradition while continuing to expand on possibilities for interaction between composition and improvisation.

While Fiction mostly included short pieces that were originally conceived as etudes to expand Mitchell’s pianistic facilities, the compositions on Vista Accumulation – eight of them spread out over two CDs — use longer forms. They flow with a narrative arc, constantly unfolding, alternately worrying over small repetitive gestures before expanding to wide vistas.

The detailed music consists as much of continuous, constantly evolving collective playing as it does a succession of solos. It has the feel of contemporary classical music, with references to Morton Feldman and Harrison Birtwistle, and yet there are several ballad-like moments, as well as fractured echoes of the blues.

The music is performed by his quartet, made up of some of the most respected musicians on New York’s cutting-edge jazz scene: Chris Speed produces a soft timbre on tenor saxophone that harkens back to Lester Young and a gorgeous tone on clarinet while playing with a thoroughly modern sensibility.

Bassist Chris Tordini – who has appeared on the Pi Recordings releases Oblique I (2011) and Alloy (2014) from drummer Tyshawn Sorey – plays with a huge, warm tone and an insightful ability to act as the glue for all the music’s parts.

Drummer Dan Weiss – who released his own critically acclaimed Fourteen on Pi in 2014 and plays with the likes of Rudresh Mahanthappa, Lee Konitz, and Dave Binney – plays with great spontaneity and a highly varied compositional sense.

Mitchell’s own supremely inventive playing encompasses a wide vocabulary of influences that are impossible to pinpoint. Paying unusual attention to dynamics of touch and exhibiting his hallmark of rhythmic and harmonic convolution, every one of his solos is the sound of constant surprise.

Etched with lyricism and emotion, Vista Accumulation affords a whole new view on Mitchell’s musical mastery.

 

 

James Rebanks

 

 

The Shepherd’s Life

Too often the Lake District has been seen through the prism of sentimental, if well intentioned, writers, such as first generation of Romantic poets, but James Rebanks, in his own vernacular and in the gripping pitch of someone who has worked its land all his life, presents another vision.

The first son of a shepherd who was the first son of a shepherd himself, Rebanks doesn’t for a minute believe that the life he has carved out for himself is his own creation. For he too has followed in the footsteps of his father and his grandfather  and generations who have gone before him, making a living off this ancient and challenging landscape, for six centuries.

He does, however, break the mould by attending university at Oxford, and his account of shepherding has a considerable following on Twitter.

 

Today, as he admits, his whole world is farming full time in and around a terrain which can be unforgiving and bleak, a place where, as he writes, spring and autumn are often hurried transitions, never really equivalent in length or spirit to winter.

 

His tableau radiates from a core of central mountains, contributing to the distinctive character that makes the entire Lake District attractive to tourists in the summer, but a difficult place for the locals to inhabit for much of the year: Rebanks is  blunt and candid about how farmers like his grandfather would have viewed people who bothered to drive to a valley to see a view.

The Shepherd’s Life is also like dispatch from a battleground, and the realism keeps you on your toes, a necessary adjustment as this is also the memoir of someone trying desperately hard to survive and remain in a place seeded by change and challenge.

Rebank’s valley, Matterdale, must be like much of the Lake District, isolated from the south and east by moorlands, peat bogs, lakes, and forests. By the time Rebanks is born in 1974, the increased social mobility (more money, more cars) of the population of the industrial regions of northern England stimulates tourism in the Lake District.

Rebanks points out that generations of families like his shaped the landscape and were, in turn, shaped by it. There is something of the Angry Young Men resentment in Rebanks revisiting of his early schooling and adolescence, but I have no doubt that the crisp and undecorated prose of The Shepherd’s Life deserves its place alongside anything by Robert McFarlane or Philip Marsden

Aberjazz

 

The closest festival of jazz in the South East of Ireland is not Cork but, in fact, 45 miles to the east, at the small but inestimably hospitable port of Fishguard, which annually hosts Abjerjazz, now entering its second decade.

Courtesy of Stena Line at Rosslare, you can be in Fishguard within three and a half hours, time enough to catch the first of many gigs which kick off at lunch, and zigzag through the afternoon and night in various venues.

The Wexford party (myself, Senan O’Reilly and Jackie Hayden) were there for two and a half days of the five day programme, which comprised almost 60 gigs in a scattering of venues, some of whose names – The Ship, Yacht Club, Skirmisher, Railwayman’s Club, Hope & Anchor – reference the village’s relationship with the sea.

Lower Fishguard, as beautiful an inlet as you will find anywhere along this sumptuous coastline, was the location for the first film adaptation of Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas, whose house and writing shed is under an hour away by car, and which starred the most famous trinity of actors in the world at the time: Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

As Fishguard hugs the west coast of Britain, it has to be the most isolated festival of its kind, and yet some of the most revered jazz acts will travel several times the distance of Wexford to Fishguard to play at Aberjazz.

So, it is not unusual to see bands, which may have been on the road for seven hours, scrambling their instruments and amplifiers moments before they are due on stage.

However, the atmosphere at an average Aberjazz concert is distinctly relaxed, an ambience encouraged by the hard working and very visible committee. Our first evening concert, by the excellent Emily Saunders ESB, featuring Courtney Pine session trumpeter Byron Wallen, in Theatr Gwaun, was delayed by 45 minutes, but the audience was unfazed.

You have to pinch yourself that artists of the calibre of Emily Saunders and Wallen are giving it their all just feet away in a quaint venue, which also doubles as a busy cinema, and it was in Theatr Gwaun that we also saw the rather serious and experimental jazz band, Polar Bear, led by Seb Rochford. Because their songs are lengthy, Polar Bear perform only about four or five, but they are magnetically cryptic, with two excellent sax players, Pete Wareham (baritone) and Mark Lockheart (tenor).

An average day at Aberjazz is bookended by a workshop at 11 a.m. and a gig at 9.30 p.m., or later, with the music still ringing in your ears just short of midnight. The prices for the more mainstream jazz bands are very reasonable (£15 for Polar Bear, £8 for the Nicola Farnon Trio) but the majority of gigs are bucketed, which means a voluntary donation, though the soliciting is never in your face. It is not the Aberjazz way.

Aberjazz is also a light blues festival: the majority of the blues gigs are scheduled for the capacious hall in Ffwrn, which has a communal feel to it, and the jazz, which has an eclectic appeal, is largely confined to Theatr Gwaun and Pepper’s, one of the best restuarants-cum jazz venues anywhere in the western world: with a five day turnaround, it hosted the Huw Warren Trio, Pete Oxley and Nicolas Meier, the Coltrane Dedication Quintet, the Dave Jones Quartet etc.

Wexford’s Kevin Lawlor was the only musician, a testament to his versatility and pedigree, to guest with three different acts in a 24 hour period: Seven Steps – a Miles Davis Tribute, the Dave Jones Quartet and the irrepressible Rusty McCarthy. Besides the music, Lawlor is drawn to technically adept musicians, and his gigs at Aberjazz were with front men with whom he has guested in Wexford: Tomos Williams, Dave Jones and Rusty McCarthy. Jazz followers will remember Williams and Jones’ many fine sets at Wexford Arts Centre.

Highlights, of which there were many, included Oxley and Meir duetting with two acoustic 12 string guitars (Meir’s was fretless), glissandi flying left, right and centre; double bassist and vocalist Nicola Farnon plucking her way through songs from American musicals with verve and elan; spine tingling horn playing from Byron Wallen and then, echoing the intensity of Coltrane and Saunders, Polar Bear’s sax duo Wareham and Lockhart, and finally, in the soft August sun pouring through Peppers, four musicians on top of their game – Kevin Lawlor, Tomas Williams, Dave Jones and Aidan Thorne – revisiting early Miles Davis. Critic Jessica Duchen, who wrote that ‘the music world’s most creative thinking often occurs in unlikely spots far from the madding crowd,’ would approve of Aberjazz.