Category Archives: Live Reviews

Unfurl – St Ann’s Church, Manchester

It’s always a pleasure to see music played live in St. Anne’ Church; a beautiful light baths everything as it pours through the stained glass windows. On occasions such as today, when the music has a certain majestic quality to it as well, audience members can end up being privy to something quite special; Stuart McCallum’s Manchester Jazz Festival commission here a couple of years ago was one such time, and there are high hopes for Neil Yates’s antiphonal performance this coming July too. But today it was the turn of Olivia Moore and her Unfurl group to inject some splendour into the lazy Manchester Sunday afternoon.

Moore has been an active part of the city’s alternative music scene for some years now, and her approach to music is one well worthy of admiration. Having trained originally as a classical violinist her playing has a purity about it, that when mixed with her interests in Arabic, Indian classical and jazz forms too, and it becomes is a heady concoction of energy and serenity in equal measures.

Showcasing Unfurl’s relatively recent line-up revision this concert was eagerly anticipated by fans who had enjoyed previous live performances. Alongside Moore on violin were percussionist, and long-time collaborator, Adam Warne; Jim Faulkner who has taken over from Stuart McCallum on guitar; bassist Gavin Barras; and finally second percussionist John Ball, who has now become a full time member of the group following his successful appearance with Unfurl at last year’s Manchester Jazz Festival.

The group performed tracks from Moore’s debut outing Amaghasiddhi, as well as several of those compositions featured in at the the Manchester Jazz Festival commission. There were also a few new peices that went a long way in showing how the new members of Unfurl were influencing the groups overall sound. As usual Moore’s compositions were exuberant and poignant affairs; each section of music acting like miniature vignettes. This is music that is intricate and yet capable of telling a universal story, what that story is, is probably very different to each listener, but it is this ability to conjure vivid imagery that makes it hugely accessible. There is no doubt that this is serious music, but many of Moore’s compositions have a devious or off-kilter feel to them. This is particularly true of the infectious Amitabha; a track akin to the more joyful and melodic early period The Penguin Cafe Orchestra. ‘City’ too was a particular highlight, with guitarist Jim Faulkner and Moore diving and swirling around each other playfully. In contrast ‘Fire’ was an altogether more edgy affair with Gavin Barras taking the group down a trance-like path with his pulsing bass riff. Rhythm dominated melody in this instance, resulting in a frantic swirl of sound that was reminiscent of The Master Musicians of Jajouka from Morocco.

This group has a very personal sound that is truly unique. Obviously each member brings a vast array of global influences to the table, but this is not ‘world music’ or ‘ethnic music’; it is simply music – a fusion in the truest sense. Enriching and full of life, this was one Sunday event well worth getting out of bed for.


Atomic at the RNCM – 30th July 2009

AtomicThe intensity of Bourne/Davis/Kane’s set would have been a hard act to follow for most   groups but Atomic managed to ignite a fire at the RNCM with their chaotic and energised sound.

Combining both tight funky riffs and cacophonous collective improvisation Atomic created a truly unique sound. At times the band locked down a groove that was accessible and almost straight ahead (I do emphasise almost!), but any sniff of standard time was axed relatively quickly in exchange for a whirlwind of polyrhythmic melodies. Barely stopping for breath for an hour each player weaved in and out of each other in an organised chaos that was both disorientating and hypnotic all at the same time.

Drummers are usually the backbone of a band but Paul Nilsen Love was something quite different on this occasion. As one of the most sought after drummers in Europe his ferocious power and often jaw dropping lateral approach to the kit has made him hitman of choice for luminaries such as John Butcher, Ken Vandermark and German sax colossus Peter Brotzman. In this setting his dizzying attack was pivotal to the group dynamic; at times setting the group free and at others reining them in.

Paul Nillsen Love

Leading the group from up front was charismatic tenorman Fredrik Ljungkvist who was in charge of the leading this group one way or another with his seemingly abrupt battle cries. This was a highly entertaining gig by a group of improvisers that aren’t afraid to swing from time to time. Challenging and manic as much of the music was in this set, there was an overriding sense that we as listeners were being taken somewhere tangible, and that whoever was driving knew how to read the map… even if we didn’t.

Bourne/Davis/Kane featuring Paul Dunmall at RNCM – 30th July 2009

Bourne Davis KaneThere is now doubt about it, this trio is one of the most adventurous and challenging groups in the UK at the moment. Based in Leeds these three exceptionally talented musicians all play a major part in the city’s ever prolific LIMA collective. Although separately they all have successful recording careers, together their telepathic skills as improvisers truly shine.

This was free music in every sense of the word with each member of the group giving and taking spontaneously throughout their performance. On this occasion British free jazz hero Paul Dunmall also joined them on stage for a cross generational meeting of minds that was simply explosive. 

The set comprised of four lengthy improvisations which mostly worked by taking a small idea and building upon it a layer at a time; like a helium ballon being filled breath by breath until it eventually implodes in on itself giving way under the pressure.

Paul Dunmall

These musical passages were like mini dramas unfolding in front of our eyes and portrayed a mixed bag of emotions. Too often free improvising groups lack the dynamic variety to keep an audience engaged, but in this case they were able to affect a whole range of emotions using pace, energy and interaction. At times it was difficult to keep up with the intensity of all four players who at their most chaotic sounded almost painfully violent. In complete juxtaposition their were times when a playfulness crept into the performance, especially in Matthew Bourne’s case, who at time virtually climbed into the piano to manipulate it with his hands – at one point even using a empty cup from the tea he had just finished drinking.

An unexpected highlight of the set came during the final piece when the intensity and atonality of previous sections were put to one side. This was replaced by a beautiful drifting piece instigated by Bourne, who slowly floated chords from his piano as Dunmall complemented them with some enchantingly beautiful lines. After the violence of the previous works this came as a surprise but the footnote only emphasised the contrast and proved that free improvisation can be equally as powerful, without necessarily travelling at one hundred miles per hour.

Alata at the RNCM – 28th July 2009

Francis Le BrasThis year’s Manchester Jazz Festival has certainly got a strong international flavour to it with groups from Spain, Italy, and Norway all being flown in to play. Along with this, the French group Alata were over this Tuesday to perform at the RNCM in what was their debut in the UK.

Led by Fancis Le Bras on Rhodes piano the quartet has a unique sound that mashes together a range of influences from Europe and Africa. Although Olivier Py provided some bold and distinctive colour on both the tenor saxophone and at times flute, this is an outfit very much driven from the back.

Bass player Thierry Colson looked very much the part with his drooping moustache and did a great job of locking his fellow band members together with his muscular riffs on the upright. This backbone was a well needed source of stability when considering the collective rhythmic counterpoints that both drummer Guillaume Dommartin and Le Bras chose to throw at one another throughout. This was often busy and frantic music with open cymbal crashes raining down on top of spiky cascades of notes from the overdriven keyboard. Knowing that these compositions were penned following time in Africa and they do a good job of painting a colourful picture of vibrant and chaotic life there.

Guillaume Dommartin

That being said the French influence was never far away and on several tunes the pace was brought right down conjuring up  the feeling of a hot and rainy Parisian night. La Bras lethargically poured glutinous chords from his piano and Dommartin subtly utilised small chimes and cymbal scratches  to produce textures that were sensual and cinematic.

The only small problem with the concert was La Bras’ decision to use samples during several pieces. These indigenous songs and soundscapes were there in an attempt to emphasise further the African influence but they simply clashed with the direction of the music. Rather than being a fully integrated part of the compositions, they seemed like a bit of an afterthought; and in several cases the technology sadly didn’t work at all. Instead of adding to the already complex arrangements of sound these beats and samples jusr acted as a distraction.

Regardless of this minor quarrel, Alata were a welcome addition to this year’s festival with their shadowy  music for midnight, thick with dark romance and frantic danger.  

Phil Meadows Quartet at the Festival Pavilion – 28th July 2009

Phil Meadows This enigmatic young player totally blew the cobwebs out of the Festival Pavilion during his afternoon slot this Tuesday. Playing here with Finlay Panter on drums, John Sandham on bass and Chris Illingworth on piano, the audience were treated to easily one the best free gigs so far this week. Meadow’s style manages to equally embrace an effortless beauty, as well as delving into the darker stuff, mixing up some ear-bending time signatures with a freer style that left many aghast and exhilarated.

Meadows does not shy away from his obvious love of John Coltrane and finished his set by playing a exquisitely warped version of My Favourite things that was pumped full of adrenaline and deservedly received one of the largest applauses of the day. But this is a player with his own style and obviously isn’t afraid to be his own man. With a great stage presence and unforgettable instrumental style this is a local player to watch out for in the future.

If you want to see Phil Meadows again then you don’t have to wait that long as he is also playing with Expo3, his drum and bass/electronic/jazz outfit. They are on with headliners Cats in Paris at Manchester’s Ruby Lounge from 7.30pm this Saturday.

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Olivia Moore: Mask at The Contact Theatre – 28th July 2009

Olivia MooreEntering the performance space of Olivia Moore’s Manchester Jazz Festival commission and you are immediately composed for the hour ahead. With only 60 seats in this studio venue there was a sense of intimacy from the very beginning. This was amplified by the low level lighting and dull Eastern drones that enveloped the room and acted to suitably prepare the audience for the almost meditative concert that was about to ensue.

If the aim of the MJF Originals scheme was to give regional composers the time and financial backing to produce something new and above all personal, then in this regard Mask is a huge success. It is apparent that Moore has had complete creative freedom on this project and has injected herself both musically and spiritually into the work. Throughout a series of musical passages and integrated short films the audience is taken along a narrative that charts childhood innocence, the disconnection of adult city life and eventually the reconnection with self through spirituality and nature. Whether this is biographical is left ambiguously, but it is obvious from Moore’s passionate delivery that this work is personal to her in many ways.

Musically, the compositions are mostly textural with members of the group improvising together to create vast sways of sound. Stuart McCallum is perfectly placed on this occasion and utilises his trademark guitar loops and echoes to great effect, while particular mention should also be made of John Ball whose work on the tabla and santoor (an Indian stringed instrument) gave colour and vibrancy to the work. Moore herself can obviously play the violin with great dexterity, but for the most part she used it with economy and for this she must be credited; although this was her project, this was a group effort musically and it shows her maturity as a leader that she gave so much space to others involved.


This was a multi media project with the music being illustrated throughout by a series of short films and visual collages. These images were projected on a large screen behind the performers who were bathed in low light throughout. Sadly there were times when the visuals just didn’t work and their blunt and slightly ham fisted delivery of the message often acted as a distraction against the subtlety and challenging nature of the music being created. The film at times made it feel as though we as audience members were being forced down a narrative path whether we liked it or not; and although it is understandable that Moore wanted to get her message across, in all honestly the music was powerful enough to do this on it own without the babbling waterfalls or silly footage of our muse stroking trees and rolling around on the forest floor.

That being said, this was a musical experience in the truest sense, and it did feel as if we oversaw something truly original, spontaneous and thoughtful.

Matt Owens: Ten at The Greenroom – 26th July 2009

Have you ever seen a bassoon in a jazz orchestra? Well you have now and to be completely honest, it was wonderful.

Matt OwensThis Sunday saw the premier performance of bassist Matt Owens’ new suite of music commissioned by the Manchester Jazz Festival. Quite unlike anything you may have heard before the general premise of the Owens’ concert was to compose and arrange music for both a jazz quintet, and perhaps more unconventionally, a wind quintet featuring; flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and French horn. With one side more comfortable as improvisers and the other used to sticking to the charts it could have been a risk for everyone involved, but it was an inspired choice to team up with the Souza Winds (a group who usually work in the contemporary classical field), and by all accounts the two camps seemed to work together perfectly.

Owens’ music is mischievous and full of far reaching influences that swept the audience along on a carpet ride, taking in samba beats and Middle Eastern rhythms along the way. But undercutting the exotic nature of many of the compositions there was a true sense that the real magic happens right here at home. This is a truly English composer who, whether conscious or otherwise, has written songs that are as quaint and whimsical as a picnic in the Cotswolds.

After his opening ode to the strangely comforting nature of Manchester’s wet weather days, complete with glockenspiel raindrops and penny whistle solo, we were transported to a bygone era of cream tea and crumpets with ‘Violet’ a picture post card of a song, in which Lucy Rugman delighting everyone with her uplifting lines on the clarinet .

There is no avoiding the playful nature of this commission if you take into account ‘Children’s Theme’, a kitch and breezy number that grooved along with Owens’ walking blues infused bass line, or ‘The Mouse Song’ featuring Odbod Collective counterpart Tom Davies; but that being said, there was absolutely nothing dated or pastiche about Owens’ work, and in fact this was a complex and accomplished work akin to the likes of Loose Tubes’ madcap pianist Django Bates’ work, or even the joyful pace of much of Joe Zawinul’s later Syndicate output. In all this was a brave and enjoyable start to the MJF Originals programme that should remind all jazz composers that music can be fun as well as serious.