Week ending 19 October 2019: beauty is a rare thing

Sometimes Cosmic Jazz is full of music that’s rousing, awakening and even loud. By contrast this week there was much that was more gentle, more acoustic, but certainly not easy listening. Ornette Coleman recorded a haunting tune called Beauty is a Rare Thing on his 1961 album This is Our Music – but we could say that beauty is certainly not a rare thing in jazz.

Emil Miszk and the Sonic Syndicate from Poland have provided previous shows with some rousing moments, including one show opener that was free, loud and very complex. Although this week’s tune was certainly from their quieter side, it was definitely not a ballad. It freed up towards the end too – and the title Hate No More is an important title for our times.

The loudest (and heaviest) the show got was courtesy of Fat-Suit from Scotland. On their own they are a large band with horns, fiddles, guitars, keyboards, drums and percussion but on their fourth album Waifs & Strays they are further augmented by a 10-piece string section, extra brass and guest soloists. This huge ensemble has what they call a “signature blend of modern jazz, folk, electronica, pop/rock and everything in between”. It is powerful stuff, a collective of multi-disciplined musicians.

We are proud that Cosmic Jazz acts as a showcase for British jazz. This has included some of the newly-emerged bands of younger musicians(including Fat-Suit) and many of the musicians from the current scenes in London, Manchester, Bristol and beyond. We have not forgotten, however some of the older pioneers of the British jazz scene and there are few musicians more important than pianist/composer Mike Westbrook, now in his eighties and still performing. His band was one of the very first live jazz acts that I saw and contributed to my love of jazz ever since. Metropolis was released in 1971 with a host of top UK jazz musicians of the time, including Kenny Wheeler, Henry Lowther, Norma Winstone, Alan Skidmore and John Marshall. It was written with the assistance of an Arts Council bursary and in nine parts traces the sounds of London – the metropolis in question. It ends in Part Nine with the calm of the night and a solo from Barbadian-born Harry Beckett, whose trumpet provides what is the most beautiful, delicate, moving piece of music with Mike Westbrook’s piano adding subtle touches in the background. The album as a whole is essential listening but the ending provides beauty beyond words. The tune has the same elegant spareness of other favourites in the Cosmic Jazz canon – Bill Evans’ Peace Piece, Miles Davis’s Blue in Green and Stan Tracy’s essential Starless and Bible Black. 

Another pianist capable of the most delicate touches and one that we have just come across is Richard Michael. He has been a jazz performer and educator in Scotland  for many years. His name, though, has reached beyond Scotland and he has garnered praise from fellow jazz pianists. Jason Rebello described him as “A wonderful pianist, brimming with vitality. His playing encompasses the roots of jazz, also bringing a unique Scottish flavour”. Julian Joseph commented that “When Richard and I duetted together his authority and openness allowed us to get straight to the music”. Richard Michael’s  solo piano album Contemplation was recorded as a 70th birthday present to himself, – a fitting tribute we think.

There was another contribution to our ongoing 80 years of Blue Note this week –  and it was a unique contribution to the catalogue. Vocalist Cassandra Wilson came up in 1993 with an acoustic pared-down bluesy-influenced album called Blue Light Till Dawn. The instruments used on the album include clarinet, classical guitar, pedal steel guitar, percussion and bass, but on the tune You Don’t Know What Love Is the vocals of Cassandra Wilson  are accompanied only by Brandon Ross on steel guitar and Charlie Burnham on violin. This may be an acoustic minimum but it’s still strong and soulful in impact.

A vocalist currently making waves is  the improbably fortunately named Jazzmeia Horn. Having heard her talk about her influences recently on the BBC’s J to Z radio show, you can tell she is someone who knows what she likes and how to convey what the music means to her. On her new album Love & Liberation you can hear her expressive range backed by some fine musicians.

Mariama is another artist we have recently come across. She was born in Sierra Leone, raised in Germany and is now based in Paris. Her album Love, Sweat & Tears includes her version of the Eden Ahbez standard Nature Boy. This perennial favourite was a big hit for Nat King Cole in 1948 and jazz artists have interpreted it ever since. Mariama’s fresh take includes kora among the instruments backing her vocals. It is interesting to note that a co-director of the album is Michael Schlindwein who has worked with the jazz-influenced hip-hop artist Akua Naru, who is much admired at Cosmic Jazz. 

Jamie Saft is a keyboard player/producer/engineer in the downtown New York scene whose impact has reached beyond jazz. The likes of John Zorn, Dave Douglas, Iggy Pop, Marc Ribot, Bill Laswell, Wadada Leo Smith and the B52s are among those with whom he has been associated, but was only in 2018 that he released his first solo album. Blue Dream is on his own Rare Noise Records but uses a traditional jazz quartet and includes three jazz standards. Do not be put off by this – the group includes exciting and innovative musicians: Bill McHenry on sax, Bradley Jones on bass, Nasheet Waits on drums and Saft on piano and the sound is definitely contemporary. Saft’s new album Hidden Corners goes for a more obviously spiritual jazz vibe, but is also recommended here at CJ.

This week’s show ended with an excerpt from the Sun Ra Arkestra now led by the ever-youthful 95 year old Marshall Allen. The band continue to have a hectic touring schedule and the reissuing of archive Sun Ra recordings continues apace. Song for the Sun may not be a classic Arkestra album (it’s too ‘straight’ for that) but the title tune is well worth a listen.

  1. Emil Miszk & the Sonic Syndicate – Hate No More from Don’t Hesitate
  2. Fat-Suit – Keo from Waifs & Strays
  3. Mike Westbrook – Metropolis IX from Metropolis
  4. Cassandra Wilson – You Don’t Know What Love Is from Blue Light Till Dawn
  5. Jazzmeia Horn – Free Your Mind from Love & Liberation
  6. Mariama – Nature Boy from Love, Sweat & Tears
  7. Richard Michael – The Lark and the Clear Air from Contemplation
  8. Jamie Saft – Blue Dream from Blue Dream
  9. Sun Ra Arkestra – Song for the Sun from Song for the Sun

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