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Julian Costello Quartet : Transitions (33 Jazz Records)

Review by John Watson

There's a sense of graceful lyricism, combined with an inner strength, in the playing of tenor and soprano saxophonist Julian Costello. This new release is much enhanced by the gorgeous fluidity of guitarist Maciek Pysz, and the quartet - completed by bassist Yuri Goloubev and drummer Adam Teixeira - works sympathetically as a complete unit.

All the compositions are by Costello, and the thread running through them is a sense of playfulness - one senses the joy of the group in exploring the melodic expression and rhythmic twists of these pieces. The gentle theme 'Waves' opens the disc, with the notes barely breathed by Costello before taking on more solid form as the piece develops. The catchy 'Earworm' is well named, but I enjoyed 'Walking Through The Jungle' most - with Costello letting fly on tenor with just Teixeira's drums in support. It's an all-too-brief episode, but the sense of freedom is welcome.  For the most part, Costello's improvising is carefully crafted, beauifully structured, and mellow.  Beautiful performances, and highly recommended.




Anouar Brahem : Blue Maqams (ECM)

Review by John Watson

Tunisian oud master Brahem has recorded in a considerable variety of settings, including, naturally, with traditional Eastern instruments. For this new release he has chosen what we might call a conventional jazz rhythm section - piano, bass and drums - were in not for the fact that the musicians playing them are far from conventional, but are players of tremendous individual character. On bass is Dave Holland, with whom Brahem has collaborated in the past. The drummer is the legendary Jack DeJohnette. And, perhaps surprisingly, the pianist is the UK's Django Bates, appearing here with Brahem for the first time. 

The combination works extraordinarily well, for Brahem has recorded in the past with jazz improvisers, including pianist Francois Couturier and saxophonist John Surman.

The opening track, "Opening Day", does have a slightly tentative, explorative feel, as though the musicians are examining the possibilities that the occasion offers - though, of course, it's more than possible that this track was not the first to be recorded for the album. Nonetheless, the subsequent tracks have a more confident, directional sense. All the compositions are by Brahem, but the intense group interplay makes this very much a collaborative performance. Bates fits in well, with subtle shadings under the shimmering strings of the oud, and lyrical flourishes. The moods are intense, and the musical colours often spellbinding.


Gary Peacock Trio: Tangents (ECM)

Review by John Watson

This new release is an absolutely captivating follow-up to the bassist's 2015 album Now This, with pianist Marc Copland and drummer Joey Baron once again completing the trio. Peacock, at the age of 82, is still displaying immense creative powers after more than six decades of recording. He formed the unit when Keith Jarrett finally disbanded the Standards Trio - as you would expect, this music is completely different, but has gorgeous mellow magic.

Peacock is the main composer on this disc, contributing 'Contact', 'December Greenwings', 'Tempei Tempo', 'Rumblin'',  and the title track, while collaborating with Copland and Baron on the freely improvised 'Empty Forest'. Baron - the most musical of drummers - is the composer of 'Cauldron' and 'In And Out', and there are versions of Miles Davis's 'Blue In Green', and Alex North's 'Spartacus'.

The empathy of the trio is extraordinary, but these are truly master musicians, and the album is packed with glorious moments - real jewels of improvising.


Cuong Vu 4-Tet : Ballet, The Music of Michael Gibbs (Rare Noise Records)

Review by John Watson

The gorgeous playing on this release is both strongly individual, and immensely respectful, in the musicians' interpretations of five works by composer Michael Gibbs. Trumpeter Cuong Vu's group features guitarist Bill Frisell - who has been a close collaborator with Gibbs on many projects - with bassist Luke Bergman and drummer Ted Poor.  It's a live recording from a 2016 concert at the University of Washington, and its release comes as Gibbs is about to undertake a UK tour Germany and with his orchestra (plus dates in Germany and the USA). See the Jazzcamera "News & Features" page for tour details.

There's plenty of space in the group's use of interplay, with the opening title track capturing the mood of Gibbs' swirling composition, a variation on the blues structure. "Feelings And Things" is simply gorgeous - moody open horn from Vu, gentle guitar strokes from Frisell, and subtle support from Bergman and Poor. This is ballad mastery. "Blue Comedy" has some lively interchange between trumpet and guitar, though the edit which ends the track is rather sudden, as though something quickly followed which had to be lost. "And On The Third Day" - long one of my favourite Gibbs works - floats gracefully, with Frisell shadowing the main theme, before increasing electronic fuzz adds a savage edge to the tonal landscape.

The album concludes with another Gibbs classic, "Sweet Rain" (a ballad famously recorded by Stan Getz on his magnificent quartet album of the same name), with Frisell introducing the theme, before Vu's mellow open horn enters majestically to take up the lead. Absolutely beautiful.



Youn Sun Nah: She Moves On (ACT)

Review by John Watson

I love the voice of Korean-born Youn Sun - her technique is absolutely extraordinary, and she brings tremendous indivuality and expression to all the songs she sings. There's a great deal to enjoy on this new release: her version of Joni Mitchell's The Dawntreader is a real highlight, and there are strong versions of Jimi Hendrix's Drifting, the folk song Black Is The Colour Of My True Love's Hair, and her own creations (usually with other writers) Traveller and Evening Star. The instrumental line-up is a strong one, including guitarist Marc Ribot. 

However, this CD doesn't come close to matching my own favourite work of Youn Sun's: the album Lento, a stupdenous collaboration with the excellent Swedish guitarist Ulf Wakenius. The duo also gave an unforgettably joyful performance that year at the Skopje Jazz Festival in Macedonia, one that will stay in my mind for ever.  She Moves On was produced and arranged by keyboardist Jamie Saft, and I think that the production has been rather over-cooked. It's a very good album, but I'm quite confident that even greater works are to come from Youn Sun Nah.


Richie Beirach and Gregor Huebner, with Randy Brecker, George Mraz and Billy Hart: Live At Birdland, New York (ACT)

Review by John Watson

If you like exciting, small-group jazz, played by absolute masters at the peak of their art, and if you are planning to buy only one CD this year, then make it this one.  For this disc - issued to mark the 70th birthday of pianist Beirach and the 50th of violinist Huebner - is the most engaging small group recording I've heard in recent times.

The music, recorded at Birdland in 2012, blazes like crazy from the opening bars of the standard song You Don't Know What Love Is, taken at a snappy tempo and with Brecker's trumpet and Huebner's violin soaring and swooping like birds over the raging wave of the rhythm section. As well as excitement, there's plenty of eloquence throughout the album, particularly in the Beirach-Huebner composition Around Bartok Bagatelle No.4 and Siciliana, the pianist and violinist's vibrant evocation of a Bach creation. These two tracks reflect the trilogy of discs recorded by the two musicians for ACT: "Round About Bartok" (2000),  'Round about Federico Mompou" (2001) and "Round About Monteverdi" (2001).

It's almost impossible to pick out highlights, as all the tracks are so strong: Beirach's own beautiful tune Elm, one of his earliest successes as a composer, Huebner's splendid African Heartbeat, and the concluding John Coltrane work Transition. A drawback in recording live at a club, even one with a distinguished history in its various New York locations, is that audience applause from a relatively small group of people can sound half-hearted.  The music, though, is all heart - and that's what counts.