THE SEEKER Ahead of a very rare London concert this month, STEPHAN MICUS talks to Simon Broughton To call Stephan Micus a multi-instrumentalist is something of an understatement. He doesn’t know how many instruments he plays – “the day I answer that you can write me off as a musician because I’ll have turned into a museum director,” he quips. But on the six CDs I have, he plays over 30 different instruments – including Japanese shakuhachi, Armenian duduk, Senegalese talking drum, Burmese gongs and so on. Micus has recorded 19 albums for ECM, almost as many as Keith Jarrett, and he’s coming with a selection of instruments to play on the opening night of the London Jazz Festival. He’s not a regular visitor – his last London concert was over 25 years ago! “I loathe cities,” says Micus, “the only time I visit cities is when I play concerts”. He’s talking to me in a cactus garden in the place where he has made his home on a stony hillside in Mallorca. As the sun sinks behind a mountain, bats flit in the twilight and quiet sets in, he continues: “That’s what I love most. Silence is the most precious thing there is.” Stephan Micus was born in southern Germany and, like most kids, learned recorder at school. “I was the only boy in my class who enjoyed it,” he remembers. “We had written notes and in the first and second class each note had a colour – I liked that. But in the third class they took away the colours and it was just black and white notes. I had a trauma and lost interest in these black dots on paper. I still can’t read a score, but you only need to write music down if someone else is going to play it.” As a teenager Micus developed a passion for flamenco guitar, Jimi Hendrix and the sitar and travelled from Istanbul to New Delhi with 40 dollars when he left school in 1972. He found a sitar teacher in Benares and devoted himself to sitar for three years. Curiously, the instrument never features in his music. “The sitar is so culturally specific,” he explains. “There are some instruments where you hear one note and it takes you to a specific world. I found the same thing with the uilleann pipes. My intention is to create a new worlds with these instruments and the sitar has such a specific sound I hardly use it.”
Micus has collected hundreds of instruments from travels all over the world. He pulls open draws in his studio to reveal a dozen different sized shakuhachi flutes, he shows me plucked instruments from various parts of Central Asia and gongs from Burma, Bali and Tibet. The music he creates has an extraordinary beauty, often contemplative in nature. He has a Buddhist-like love of the purity of sound for its own sake. He carefully picks a cast of instruments for each album, often instruments that would never normally be heard together. Or he makes ensembles out of instruments that are usually played solo. All the music
‘Eventually you get into the core of the instrument’
– STEPHAN MICUS
is composed, played (and sung) and multi-tracked by Micus. His last album, Bold As Light, has an oriental feel, with distinctive eastern instruments. The most beautiful is the raj nplaim (pronounced ranplei), a reed instrument from Laos. It’s normally played solo, but Micus creates pieces for six or eight of them creating something otherworldly, like an accordion with sliding glissandos. He also plays sho, a Japanese mouth organ, but surrounds it with prayerlike incantations featuring 17 tracks of his own voice. The shakuhachi flute is a favourite instrument, but here accompanied by a rhythmic kalimba thumb-piano from Tanzania. And a new instrument for him is the nohkan, the flute from Japanese noh theatre. “I start by learning the traditional repertoire and eventually you get into the core of the instrument”, says Micus, about how he creates his pieces. “I try and conserve the spirit of the traditional way of playing the instrument, but I’m always interested in how you can develop it further. I certainly find it hard to imagine composing music for an instrument I couldn’t play myself and the instrument itself shows you what it wants to say”. Micus says he will bring to London shakuhachi, duduk, sho and kalimba and will sing with a bodhran and perform his two pieces with Japanese nohkan from Bold As Light. In the spirit of the extreme aesthetic of the noh theatre, the flute has a strange tuning that makes it difficult to combine with any other instruments. But Micus has made it work in a brilliant combination with growling zithers. It’s a dreamy sound-world, full of air and space. Totally original. “The common factor in the diversity of the world’s music is the human being who created it”, concludes Micus. “The wish to express oneself with music is one thing that all humans share. Which does make music a universal language.” Stephan Micus performs in the Purcell Room at the London Jazz Festival on 11 November
GEOFF EALES SHIFTS GEAR Pianist Geoff Eales makes a surprise move into jazz-rock with a new band and album released at the end of October. His new band, Isorhythm, features saxophonist Ben Waghorn, guitarist Carl Orr, electric violinist Chris Garrick, bassist Fred T Baker and drummer Asaf Sirkis while Eales will be playing both acoustic and Fender Rhodes electric piano. The album, Shifting Sands, is released on 33 Records and includes eight new Eales compositions that take their inspiration from Mahavishnu Orchestra, Frank Zappa and Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters. The album is launched at the Pheasantry in Chelsea on 8 November followed by an Isorhythm UK tour in the spring. Meanwhile Geoff Eales plays solos dates including Northwood Golf Club (14 Nov); Savile Club, London W1 (25); Jagz, Ascot (27); West Ruislip Golf Club (28); and Dempseys, Cardiff (29).
Take Five Adds Wider European Dimension Promoter Serious has announced details of Take Five: Europe which follows seven UK editions of Take Five. The first TF: E will run across 2011 and 2012. The ten selected for the mentoring and professional development scheme are Céline Bonacina, France (saxophones); Benjamin Flament, France (vibraphone/percussion); Bram Stadhouders, the Netherlands (guitar); Oene van Geel, the Netherlands (viola); Gard Nilssen, Norway (drums); Ole Morten Vagan, Norway (bass); Maciej Garbowski, Poland (bass); Maciej Obara, Poland (alto saxophone); Fraser Fifield, UK (whistles/pipes/ saxophone); and Tom Arthurs, UK (trumpet/flugelhorn). For more go to takefiveeurope.com
I note with confounded displeasure how no-one these days is able to keep their mouths shut for one moment with all this online social media twaddle about. Just how much information can a poor chap digest in a day? It’s like the bloody television these days; 3,000 channels and nothing on any of them! One confesses to experimenting with Twitter a while back, and one happily sent out a tweet or two
Putting decent values back into jazz music believing it would stimulate debate, and might provide much needed guidance in these troubled times, not so it would end up part of a forgotten trail of endless trivia on people’s lives! Do people really want to hear some stranger wittering on about having coffee after a heavy night? I’ll give these chaps a “heavy night” all right, let’s send shells flying inches past their heads or have them watch explosions that throw decapitated limbs into the air. Let’s see if they can stop their bowels shaking long enough to type something on bloody Twitter then! Sadly, and in spite of my nightly little notes of caution, the dear lady wife joined Facebook the other day. She ended up with more friends than she’d ever had in all her blessed life as well as eight marriage proposals and an offer to join a new S&M evening! Those of us who like to see intelligent opinions in jazz are now surrounded on a daily basis by this kind of banal self-promotion and blah blah posturing from self-appointed scribblers desperate to write about themselves and push their barely knowledgeable opinions off as some kind of fact. Some discipline and responsibility is urgently called for. When I look up a new jazz musician who’s making an appearance in my local club in Ventnor, I don’t expect it to come up with all this brown nosing nonsense about them or other unchecked information. That’s called blogging is it? I call it bogging and I wish they’d ruddy well bog off!
8 NOVEMBER11 // Jazzwise BRILLIANT C O R N E R S
Jazzwise staggers down memory lane, delves into dark corners and revisits the shrines that pepper the history of the music. THIS MONTH: METROPOLE HOTEL, CORK, IRELAND STORY: BRIAN PRIESTLEY. PHOTO: COURTESY CORK JAZZ FESTIVAL
We’re supposed to call it the Gresham Metropole, but to people in Cork it’s just “the Metropole” (like the Aviva Stadium in Dublin is still “Lansdowne Road” to everyone there). The Metropole is a big city-centre hotel with 100-odd beds but crucially including a large ballroom and many other public rooms, each with adjacent bars. It’s also central to the Cork Jazz Festival which was founded in 1978 when, faced with the cancellation of a bridge congress, the hotel’s marketing manager Jim Mountjoy went for a jazz weekend with Ronnie Scott as the main act. So successful was it that, the following year, cigarette manufacturers John Player became sponsors and, the year after that, Mountjoy went direct to Norman Granz to book Ella Fitzgerald. By then, it was necessary to use larger halls such as Cork Opera House for headliners, but the Metropole (soon designated for the weekend as the “Festival Club”) remained the hub, giving admission to several hours of music and the several bars. It helped that the government had declared the last weekend of October a bank holiday – as Gilad Atzmon told Sky Arts: “The music is always great, but there is always a lot of beer… and, on top of that, it’s a 24-hours-a-day party.” That aspect was hardly minimised when in 1982 Guinness took over sponsorship, which led to creation of a pub trail and the addition of other hotels and venues such as the Everyman Palace Theatre. The festival’s programme director since the mid-1980s, Jack McGouran, is a marketing professional with a background in journalism who became involved via other projects for Guinness, now in their thirtieth year as sponsors. “Our budget this year is the same as last year, but I don’t expect it to be the same next year,” says McGouran. “But we have reduced prices substantially, and we have changed some of the music to make it a little bit more ‘popular’.” Instancing the Honest Jon’s Chop-Up group fronted by Damon Albarn, Jack finds this preferable to the North Sea festival’s four nights by
Prince or Pori’s inclusion of Tom Jones and Elton John. McGouran himself clearly relishes his current bookings of Jean-Luc Ponty, Bill Evans/Randy Brecker, Kyle Eastwood and Ian Shaw, and was previously impressed by Brad Mehldau “and also Kurt Elling – the first time he came to Cork was fantastic.” Meanwhile, the Metropole was also known for latenight jam sessions, often centring on renowned Irish guitarist Louis Stewart and combining, for instance, Brian Lynch and Adam Nussbaum (who came with different groups) or Kirk Lightsey and Robin Eubanks. But now these will move to the Triskel Christchurch (a newly completed 4.8m Euro renovation, funded before the recession) because the Festival Club, McGouran admits, is “Not that great for listening – now it’ll be a real jazz session rather than a drinks session.” The Triskel may become a future Brilliant Corner, but meanwhile the Metropole will still be full of Irish bands and, no doubt, Irish drinkers.
Album sleeves they’d rather forget Jutta Hipp Quintet Cool Dogs & Two Oranges MGM German bop pianist Jutta Hipp worked with leading Austrian saxophonist Hans Koller in 1951 before going over to New York and making a big impression in the mid-1950s releasing three albums for Blue Note. It’s alleged she had to deal with the discrimination from being both a European and a female jazz musician in the US, which was very rare at the time,
and a lack of confidence is said to have contributed to her retirement from the jazz scene in 1958. Perhaps it’s best not to read too much into this sleeve for a 1954 German quintet recording that featured alto saxophonist Emil Mangelsdorff. But it might be this background that is the root of this rather Freudian arrangement of frankfurters and oranges. Any further questions will be dealt with discreetly by the Jazz Psychiatrist, c/o Jazzwise. Selwyn Harris
THE COLUMN THEY’RE QUEUING UP TO BE IN... The sight of two of the UK’s top jazz festival producers gyrating wildly on a disco podium to a medley of tracks from the John Travolta/Olivia Newton-John musical Grease can only mean one thing. Yup, you guessed it. It’s 3.30am in the Amigo Club in Tallinn’s Hotel Sokos Viru at September’s European Jazz Network meeting and beverage intake would appear to have been on the rather generous side. Bad behaviour though was in generally short supply with early morning starts and late into the evening Estonian jazz showcases rendering most of the party crew too tired to lift another glass. The odd late arrival at EJN meetings did perhaps point to the odd spot of secret drinking, possibly inspired by the fact the hotel, during the Soviet Union years, was a former favourite of the KGB who installed a listening and spy suite on the top floor that has now become a museum. Jazzwise editor Jon Newey was somewhat concerned as the hotel room depicted in the KGB museum brochure was the actual one he was staying in. Elsewhere at the EJN, the Dixon of Dock Green TV theme tune became a daily ritual inspired by the appointment of the new Met Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe, who would like to see a return to Dixon-era values… The late Ray Smith of Ray’s Jazz shop fame had his ashes scattered in Soho Square Gardens in mid-September followed by memorial drinks in the Blue Post pub in Soho… Reasons to be cheerful, Claire Martin reported to be recording in New York with pianist Kenny Barron… Jazz industry revellers at the London Jazz Festival launch at Smithfield Bar and Grill put on a sterling bar performance this year, perhaps to calm worries over these troubled economic times, or simply to attempt to get into these very pages. Come on down then young Rupert Burley the new boy at Air PR whose work colleagues seemed intent on breaking the poor fellow in with some unmentionable drinking pranks but who proved sensible enough to shrug their infantile behaviour off. Not so a particular thirsty gent from the F-IRE Collective whose bar antics and wild gesticulations caused onlookers to gasp in horror, or possibly admiration. Popular opinion the next day suggested that while the mojitos and wine slipped down far too easily they proved a deathly combination the next morning… Interesting aside from the actress and former Paul McCartney girlfriend Jane Asher who, when asked by The Guardian which art form she doesn’t relate to, says she “finds modern jazz quite tricky”. Even though she’s married to the artist Gerald Scarfe… Saxophonist Frank Griffith made his presence more than felt at the launch of young Mancunian crooner Alexander Stewart’s Pizza Express Jazz Club album launch in September. But what on earth was he nattering about on stage and when he strolled to the bar during the second set?... The economic crunch may be deepening daily and sit-down protests and civil disobedience has started on Wall Street and other financial hubs in the USA but that doesn’t stop the market for rare Blue Note vinyl on eBay from rising to unthinkable levels. An original deep groove 47 West 63rd St pressing of Hank Mobley’s Hank Mobley (BLP 1568) in pristine condition and said to be from the stock of famous jazz collector and auctioneer Leon Leavitt went for $5,600 in September, a new record for what is one of the very rarest Blue Note LPs.
Jazzwise \\ NOVEMBER11