RNCM, Manchester Tuesday 28th July 2009. MJF Festival Art of Sound Alata
The innovative combination of acoustic instrumentation and electronic gadgetry has earned British trio the Art of Sound rave reviews and a cult following in recent years, and it was therefore with great anticipation that they took the stage as part of a double bill during MJF week. After an informal introduction to greet the audience, a repetitive yet highly melodic riff opened proceedings with the inventive interplay between trio members immediately apparent. Pianist/leader John Law partakes in a good deal of solo improviation and is especially influenced by the romantic school of jazz piano of Bill Evans who has proven to be such an influence on the 1960s generation of pianists such as Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock in their acoustic phases. Evans would surely have been fascinated by the manner in which Art of Sound have taken the trio format in a wholly new direction. On the piece ‘Congregation’ the electronic sound intro serves as the springboard for extended piano improvisation, yet is is the delicate entering, departure and re-entering of the bass and drums with piano that impresses here. In general the Art of Sound are supremely well versed in jazz history at the same time as looking to the future and on ‘Trap clap’ the modal bass riff fromSam Burgess in the introduction and Latin-tinged drumming from Asaf Sirkis gives way to be-bop soloing from that Bud Powell would have been proud of.
The range of electronic sounds are used almost as a turntable like with old-school 1970s rappers to create special effect and embellish the overall trio sound. It is the ability of the trio to stretch out a seemingly simple riff and explore that is undoubtedly one of the Art of Sound’s major strengths, exemplified on the lyrical ‘Watching and waiting’. On the provocatively titled ‘Cannibal nibble’ the riff is repeated and improvised over (complete with siren sound) with a distinct Latin vibe and is reminiscent of the classic percussion outing ‘Jingo’, originally aired by Santana, but whose definitive version became a clubland hit for master Cuban conguero Candido. The full range of piano keys are deployed here hinting at Cecil Taylor as another influence. A quasi-religious tone was struck during the encore with ‘Kira’, a composition that pays homage to Bach (recalling also Jacques Loussier and his unique take on the composer) with the trio gently building in intensity and a piano vamp from Law that even takes in calypso, before gently fading out a la Abudullah Ibrahim. Even an untimely fire alarm (definitely not one of the intended accompanying sounds!) after the very first piece could not dampen proceedings on a performance that demonstrated above all the elasticity of the piano trio format.
The second half of the evening was taken up with a very welcome addition to the annual MJF, a French musical presence, which came in the form of Parisian-based quartet Alata. The group take as their inspiration and starting point the electric piano ensembles of the late 1960s and early 1970s as pioneered by Miles Davis on ‘In a silent way’. Keyboardist and leader Francis Le Bras proved to be an extremely sensitive accompanist and soloist following in a fine tradition of French jazz pianists from acoustic masters such as Martial Solal through to those combining electic and acoustic formats best illustrated by Michel Sardaby and the sadly departed Michel Petrucciani. He was ably assisted in these endeavours by the sure double bass of Emmanuel Brunet and the polyrhythms of Guillaume Dommartin. If Le Bras explaining titles in English to the audience belonged, perhaps, to the Jacques Tati school of sign-aided communication, the well behaved audience took this all in good humour. Alata excel on mid-tempo pieces where the multi-reedist Olivier Py impressed on tenor and was influenced by the soulful as well as exploratory sounds of French ace Barney Wilen, and more generally by the tenor giants Joe Henderson and Sonny Rollins. The best was left for last with two final compositions on which Py reverted to flute playing highly melodic solos a la Joe Farrell from his CTI tenure with Chick Corea. Alata came into their own on these and would do well to pursue that particular sound further. A night of new discoveries, then, for audience and band alike to cherish. Tim Stenhouse