My favourite gigs of 2009

2009 was a lively year for live jazz in Birmingham and the Midlands over the last 12 months but some gigs stand out more than others. And then there were the ones I travelled a little further for.

The year started strongly with two great gigs in its first few weeks. First was the second visit to Birmingham of Julian Siegel’s trio, matching his tenor saxophone and clarinets with the double bass and drums of two renowned US players, Greg Cohen and Joey Baron.  They played close up and unamplified, and whether improvising on original Siegel tunes or on standards like Moonlight In Vermont, their close understanding and shared sense of musical exploration was mesmerising. Then pianist Liam Noble brought his trio to town, playing the music of Dave Brubeck and, to a great extent, rehabilitating material that had, for many of us, become jazz we had come to take for granted.

In March Lionel Loueke, the extraordinary guitarist from Benin, came to the Glee Club Studio with his international trio (a Hungarian drummer, a Swiss-Italian bassist) to amaze his audience with weird time signatures and virtuoso displays that involved electronic manipulation as much as guitar playing.

A visit to the Edge Arts Centre in Much Wenlock, Shropshire, was rewarded with two sets of gorgeous European jazz from the Mathias Eick Quartet. This Norwegian trumpeter had just won a prestigious jazz prize and was touring on the back of it. He will clearly have a lot more fans now than he had at the beginning of ’09.

May was Cheltenham time and my fond memories from the ’09 Festival include a fiery set from the Dave Douglas band, some deeply atmospheric stuff from Arve Henriksen and Jan Bang, and a sanctified set from the Don Byron New Gospel Quintet.

It was back to Birmingham for two very different gigs in May – the Australian piano trio The Necks bringing rock, trance and minimalist elements to improvisation at the CBSO Centre, and then the Branford Marsalis Quartet at the Town Hall showing there is still lots of life in the classic post-Coltrane jazz tradition.

In July I saw and heard Keith Jarrett in the flesh for the first time in London’s Royal Festival Hall – an evening of memorable music from the Standards Trio nearly overwhelmed by the big star hoopla that now surrounds Jarrett.

Some of the brightest young jazz musicians in the country studied one of the genre’s most idiosyncratic masters, Eric Dolphy, and then showed us what they had learned when Empirical played Birmingham in September.

Another trip to London, this time for Kurt Elling and his band with Ernie Watts on saxophone doing their Coltrane/Hartman tribute material at the Pizza Express. Such a fine club and Kurt opened with what is now for me the definitive reading of My Foolish Heart (I have included a YouTube video of his version from the Montreal Jazz Festival, below). A romantic night in all the right ways.

And then it was time to be reminded that jazz is surely the elixir of youth, as The Profound Sound Trio and saxophonist Lee Konitz made separate visits to Birmingham within a week in the late autumn. Whether exploring free jazz or the standards, these songs of experience rang out loud and clear.

In the smaller venues, like the Rainbow in Digbeth and Biggin Hall in Coventry, I enjoyed strong sets from Shabaka Hutchings and Zed-U and the Paul Booth Quintet featuring Canadian trumpeter Ingrid Jensen.

Finally, let’s hear it for the continuing riches to be found in the Symphony Hall foyer most Fridays between 5.30pm and 7pm. Whether the bands had travelled from London (the Sam Crockatt Quartet with the marvellous Kit Downes on piano), Manchester (Real Book North West with the marvellous Mike Walker on guitar) or more locally (Haines-Puddick Jazz Orchestra, Mike Williams Quartet, with the marvellous Phil Robson on guitar), the quality of music to be enjoyed for no charge was outstanding.

Categories: Live review

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