Jazzahead! 2012 kicked off its first evening of showcases with a themed evening dedicated to musicians from Spain. Early in the evening, drummer Guillermo McGill transcribed the music of Ramón Montoya (considered by some to be the father of flamenco guitar) and saxophonist Fernando Vilches, who released three albums together in the 1920s. With Dani de Morón handling guitar duties, and bassist Manuel Posadas filling the bass chair, it was saxophonist Julian Argüelles who brought the music to lifeand into the 21st century. Despite being born and raised in England, Argüelles' familial background includes some Latin blood and, between his 2011 performance with pianist Mário Laginha at the 2011 Jazz no Parque in Portugal and his stellar performance here, it's clear there's no escaping at least some of his roots, even as he applied a more sophisticated vernacular to music nearly a century old.
Unfortunately, saxophonist José Luis Gutiérrez and his quartet didn't fare quite so well, despite a promising start. Clearly imbued with an absurd sense of humor, Gutiérrez came onstage with his alto and soprano saxophones, but also with a bevy of other strange implements and found objects. Beginning the performance with what looked like a microphone stand that had a series of rings on the bar, he created a jangling percussive intro that seemed intriguing until the group entered, rendering it largely superfluous. And that was the modus operandi for the rest of the quartet's short set, despite everyone clearly being capable. Guitarist Luis Giménez was the least dominant of the bunch, capable but lacking flair. Bassist Marco Niemietz and drummer Tommy Cagginani were more impressive, muscularly navigating Gutiérrez's sometimes idiosyncratic music, often filled with stop/start accents, with ease. As a saxophonist, Gutiérrez was also impressive, running the range of both instruments and employing a number of extended techniques to great effect.
While at least some of the crowd enjoyed Gutiérrez's wacky sense of humor, it ultimately became tiresome, however, when a set-closing duo between Cagginani and Gutiérrez found the drummer introducing all kinds of found objects onto the mix, ranging from small, battery-driven devices to keep his cymbals ringing to squeaky toys, garbage pail lids and more. Comedy is about timing and knowing when to quit; unfortunately, Gutiérrez and his group went well past that time, and it's a shame, as it was a group with some promise. Nothing wrong with humor in music, but a little more restraint might have gone a long way.
While the looming effects of jetlag meant being unable to stay for the entire final show of the evening, it was well worth waiting for even a few minutes of Benavent-Di Geraldo-Pardo, which featured two musicians best-known internationally for their collaborations with Chick Corea, most recently on 2005's Rhumba Flamenco: Live in Europe (Chick Corea Productions) and the pianist's ambitious The Ultimate Adventure (Stretch, 2006), but here performing their own music from Sin Precedentes (Nuevos Medios, 2009).
Bassist Carles Benavent is a completely different kind of electric playercapable of anchoring the pulse with drummer Tino Di Geraldo but, coming from the flamenco tradition, also imbuing the music with a strong melodic foil for Jorge Pardo, who opened on flute but had saxophones on hand for the rest of the set. Together, this trio of fifty-somethings played with the energy and commitment of folks half their age, but with the experience and comfortable ease of players who've been around the block more than a few times. The music was, indeed, flamenco fusion, but whereas McGill was often a little too literal and Gutiérrez way too over-the-top, Benavent-Di Geraldo-Pardo was the perfect combination of passion, power and lyricism.
Following ACT label head/producer Siggi Loch's receipt of the ŠKODA Award, the label presented two showcases that couldn't have been more different. First up was German pianist/singer Jens Thomas and his Speed of Grace (2012) project, which curiously turned the balls-to-the-wall music of classic rock group AC/DC into singer/songwriter grist. Like the recording, Thomas was accompanied only by up-and-coming Finnish trumpeter Verneri Pohjola, but unlike the discon which he also employs Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer, harmonium and shaman drumThomas' performance was almost entirely acoustic. Almost, because for the set closer, he brought out an old metronome and, setting it to tempo, quipped "much nicer than beep, beep, beep."
Entering the room from the rear, Thomas slowly made his way to the stage singing in a high, powerful falsetto, ultimately seated at the piano and moving into a soft medley of "Highway to Hell" and "It's a Long Way to the Top." AC/DC never sounded this melancholy. Pohjola came onstage for "The Jack," his long, sinewy lines providing counterpoint to Thomas' blues-inflected playing, though it was when Thomas returned to falsetto in the set's encorethe only non-AC/DC tune, the pianist's own "Keep It Down Boy"that the two voices merged, creating something quite special. The idea of adapting AC/DC as singer/songwriter material may sound like shtick, but Thomas' impressionistic approach was clearly all his own.
But it was ACT's second showcase that would prove to be not just a highlight of their afternoon, or the day, but of the entire Jazzahead! 2012. British saxophonist Tim Garland first came together with pianist Gwilym Simcock in Acoustic Triangle, the all-acoustic group with bassist Malcolm Creese. As unique as that trio was (there's not been a new release since 2008's Audio-B recording, 3 Dimensions), it was when Garland recruited Simcock and Israeli expat percussionist Asaf Sirkis for a bass-less trio that was at the core of his more ambitious If the Sea Replied (Sirocci, 2005)which also featured a string ensemble, Creese and ex-Lammas guitarist Don Patersonthat he'd found a new group to rival his extant Storms/Nocturnes Trio, with pianist Geoffrey Keezer and vibraphonist Joe Locke.
Two very different groups, of course; but while Storms/Nocturnes has always been a collaborative group compositionally, Garland's trio with Simcock and Sirkis remained largely his own project through the release of the similarly expansive Libra (Globalmix, 2009) until more recently, with the release of Lighthouse (ACT, 2012), which represents a number of firsts. The album was not released under Garland's name alone, with the banner of "Simcock Garland Sirkis" reflecting the more egalitarian nature of a group that has evolved considerably since If the Sea Replied. Everyone in the group is now a leader in his own right, and with Lighthouse, Garland also shares compositional duties, albeit mostly with Simcock.
Lighthouse is also the first recording to feature the trio without any additional augmentation, and if its brief showcase was any indication, this is a trio that needs nothing more than its three core members. Opening with Garland's Spanish-tinged "Bajo del Sol"recorded by the trio on Libra but first heard during Garland's tenure with drummer Bill Bruford's Earthworks on Random Acts of Happiness (Summerfold, 2004) andl, later, on the live Earthworks Underground Orchestra (Summerfold, 2006)Garland opened the set with a bass clarinet solo that set a high bar for the rest of the set.
A bar that was met, and raised by Simcock, Sirkis and Garland himself, as he moved to soprano saxophone for his mid-song solo on "Bajo" following Simcock, whose star continues to rise for his own recordings, including the impressive solo effort, Good Days At Schloss Elmau (ACT, 2011), and rightfully so. How these guys managed this kind of heat in a brightly lit room in the middle of the afternoon is anyone's guess, but it's clear that this is a trio that can turn it on at any time of the day or night...and at the drop of a hat. Garland's "The Wind on the Water" followed, a gentler ballad but still possessing the under-the-hood complexities that give this trio such a rich sound and an undercurrent of tension that's in a constant state of flux, between Simcock's contrapuntal accompaniment, Garland's broad-reaching lyricism and Sirkis' absolutely perfect pulse, delivered on a curious hybrid of a drum kit that included plenty of hand drums in addition to the more conventional cymbals and bass drum.
Sirkis also plays a mean hangthat curious tuned percussion instrument that looks like an inverted wok, designed by two Swiss instrument makers to be used for meditation purposes, but popularized by another British group, Portico Quartet, on a series of cutting-edge albums including the recent Portico Quartet (Real World, 2012). But whereas Portico's use of the hang is more textural, Sirkis' own career as a leader and composer on albums including 2008's The Monk (SAM) means his approach to the instrument is more fully integratedand melodically distinct. His a capella opening to Simcock's vibrant "King Barolo" was yet another highlight of a set filled with them, while his seamless move back to sticks and pulse-driven accompaniment, for a tenor solo from Garland that built to a dizzying peak, only served to demonstrate his unfailing ability to be in the right place at absolutely the right time.
An unidentified tune where Garland began by blowing his tenor into Simcock's piano, setting off a cloud of sympathetic string vibrations that proved it's possible to think outside the box sonically without the use of electronics, led to Simcock's closer, the fast-paced, occasionally odd-metered but unrelentingly grooving "Space Junk." While by no means an imitator, Garland's rich vernacular, potent tone and personal ideation make him as much a torch-bearer for the late Michael Brecker as Chris Potter is in the United States, and deserving of the same popular acclaim. Simcock, since literally leaping onto the scene just a few short years ago, may well be Britain's youthful answer to John Taylor, though his classical background lends him a different perspective and way into the music. Sirkis, with his unorthodox kit and a compositional background that gives him a broader perspective than many percussionists, is a veritable force of nature, albeit one as capable of subtlety and nuance as he is overt displays of virtuosity. Together, Simcock, Garland and Sirkis embody the best qualities of virtuosity, lyricism and empathic interaction, making Lighthouse already one of the year's best releases and their performance at Jazzahead! 2012 a brief teaser for what they must be like in a proper concert hall with a complete program.