Tag Archives: thsh

Hans Koller: Chasing the Unicorn @ Bramall


Surprisingly regularly, I find myself being asked by other students about where to hear this ‘oh so elusive’ jazz music. As a musician and loyal follower of the Birmingham jazz scene, this seems bizarre to me: the answer is that the options for finding live jazz in the city are endless – if you know where to look that is. Even so, the starting points appear obvious, indeed, you don’t need to wander too far from New Street station forecourt to find them. Venues like the Yardbird have recently come back into favour, often featuring jazz students from Birmingham Conservatoire as well as more established artists, not just in the jazz genre solely, but also with funk, ska and rock bands making an appearance. Look only a little further and you’ll see the sweeping windows of Symphony Hall, through which stunning jazz musicians can be seen for free every Friday evening from 5pm. Not far away down Broad Street, tucked away from the likes of Flares, Reflex and O Bar, is the CBSO Centre, which despite its obvious classical connotations is often home to many an internationally renowned jazz artist; already, a nice trio of jazzy venues all within a stone’s throw of one another.


If you can’t, however, bring yourself to make that seven minute train journey into the centre from University station, then never fear. Jazzlines’ free gigs at Bramall foyer provide the perfect opportunity to hear some fantastic musicians right in the heart of campus. These are held on the first Thursday of every month and have previously featured the likes of the Reuben James Quartet, the Rob Barron Trio, the Andy Isherwood Band and, last month, the Mike Williams Quartet.

P1040442February’s installation came in the form of Hans Koller’s ‘Chasing the Unicorn’ International Quartet, featuring himself on piano, Francois Theberge on saxophones, Percy Pursglove on trumpet and bass, Jeff Williams on drums and special guest alto saxophonist John O’Gallahger from New York. From the first note, the band aligned to form a focussed sound, blending and moving effortlessly between time signatures. The two saxophones contemplated each other perfectly in The Secret Garden, underpinned by subtle but intricate brush strokes from the drums and lush piano harmonies. The next piece, also one of Koller’s compositions, was one written in two parts, in response to a German poem, the first of which was a frenetic representation of the poem’s first half: ‘youth’. Here, the horns worked almost in counterpoint in the head, then combining together for the cross-rhythmic, four-note motif that was to glide over the busy bassline and chromatic piano figures. Far more use was made of the kit in this tune, Jeff Williams outlining the different colours of the toms and cymbals, dropping out altogether at one point leaving just an intense and extended alto sax break. There was brilliant use of silence in the set, particularly seen in the subtle, solo segue sections, particularly in the transition from ‘youth’ to ‘age’, taking a far more reserved tone for which Percy Persglove abandoned his double bass in favour of his trumpet, adding new shades to the harmonies of the front line.


There were playful, but also soulful moments from Francois Theberge’s solos, exploring in the upper register of the tenor sax to create some amazing melodic moments. Trumpet followed this to reveal a featured moment for all three horn players, seamlessly interlinking in the central section of this tune, combining again to conclude in a beautifully tender last breath. As the set continued, the repertoire’s influences became more and more varied and unexpected, with Koller taking to the trombone for his adaption of one of Bach’s evening chorals from the eighteenth century. Needless to say, this was a far cry from the original, yet with the hypnotically mellow swing defining the texture, combined with smooth harmonies and stepping-stone melody from the three horns, the effect was one of fixating, haunting beauty.

The most important thing to remember is that these kind of gigs are there if you just look for them. Whether you’re an aspiring jazzer yourself, mere jazz enthusiast or just trying to jump on this ‘hip’ bandwagon that has actually been in existence since the mid-1940s, you need not look any further than Jazzlines’ Bramall gigs: quality jazz right on your doorstep.

Jazzlines will next come to the Bramall Music Building on March 7th with bassist Chris Mapp and his quartet, bringing music influenced by the likes of MIles Davis, John Coltrane and Radiohead.

Anna Lumsden

‘The Voyage’ launches

This summer a huge ship will be sailing into Birmingham as the centrepiece of a weekend of free outdoor performances to open the Cultural Olympiad. The Voyage – an hour long spectacle combining dance, theatre and music – will take place every evening at 10pm between 21-24 June in Victoria Square. The performances will be the culmination of a two year project between Leamington Spa’s highly regarded dance theatre company Motionhouse, Australian theatre company Legs on the Wall, the Birmingham Hippodrome, and Logela Multimedia.

Last Monday, I was invited to the launch event for The Voyage at Birmingham Town Hall. Through previous involvement with Motionhouse I had heard bits and pieces about this summer’s spectacle, but this was the first time I had been able to see how it is all going to look. The verdict? Very impressive and very ambitious! Five minutes into the thirty minute preview, given mainly by Kevin Finnan, the artistic director, I realised I was going to need to tweet and hash tag the flood of information he was expounding, and my opinions on it all. Here’s a brief synopsis from those tweets of what The Voyage is, what may make it a success, and what problems it might face:

The story is influenced by the history of sea voyages from the 1930s to the 1960s in an echo of those making their way to London this summer for the Olympics. Dancers, aerialists and assorted other performers will open the show by making their way through the crowd under a sea of tickertape and as they walk the gang plank onto the passenger liner they will accompanied by the huge amateur choir singing the ‘Song of Departure’. The ship will then ‘sail’ away on an ocean of tears from the numerous weeping eyes projected onto the hull and deck. The voyage can now take place, but it is punctuated by a violent storm and the ‘Dance of the Lost’ as passengers search for those washed overboard. Their rescue will take place within the crowd, and this interaction with the public and the immersive nature of the event is what underpins the whole ethos of The Voyage. The performance will finish with a triumphant and glorious arrival as the ship docks back into the square, the conclusion of an event involving not only professional dancers but also 140 community performers from the area.

Finnan gave the attendants a vivid idea of what The Voyage will look like, while leaving plenty of tantalising details to intrigue and ensure a large turn out on the opening night. The inspiration and ideas behind the performance, of immersive journeys and the “perusal of ideas” as Finnan put it, are immediately tangible to a public audience who may not have encountered dance and performance on this scale or level of ability before. The producers are aiming for an audience of 5000-6000 per night, which looks ambitious, especially as each ‘voyage’ doesn’t start until 10pm and takes place within the health and safety nightmare of the uneven square. The timing has obvious benefits and drawbacks: the night sky will make the whole show more dramatic, and a 10pm start allows those seeking evening entertainment in the city a cultural kick off before bars/clubs/recitals etc. However, the late start will also prevent young children from attending, and this is a major blow for families keen on taking in such an impressive (and free) event. All in all though, The Voyage is going to be an extraordinary way to spend a summer evening, and well worth students sticking around for (or making their own voyage back to the city). It’s certainly one I’m not going to be missing.

For regular updates follow @thevoyage2012 on Twitter.

Words by Andy Newnham

Laura Marling and Guests @ Symphony Hall

The soulful folk melodies of Pete Roe drifted around the atrium of the Symphony Hall, perfectly setting the scene for the rest of the night’s performances. Although the seats were not yet full, his set of folk and blues songs were clearly enjoyed by the audience, not only for the catchy melodies but also the heartfelt lyrics.

Next, Taylor Kirk, a sole member of Canadian folk rock band Timber Timbre entered the stage. Although unaccompanied by the rest of the band, he maintained a stage presence and the dissonant chords created a style of folk that can only be described as spooky. Despite this, a comparison to The Tallest Man on Earth springs to mind, but Timber Timbre certainly possessed grit, which echoed their Canadian roots. Even as a solo performer, Kirk’s vocals reverberated around the venue, and reminded the listener of a different age of folk music.

By now, the Symphony Hall was almost completely full and the anticipation for the headliner was electric. Without further ado, Laura Marling and her band entered the stage and instantly started to play I Was Just a Card, which was simply captivating. With the audience in the palm of her hand, Marling continued to perform stand out songs from her most recent album A Creature I Don’t Know. The song Salinas particularly showcased the talent of Marling’s band, in which the banjo player jumped between the French horn and the guitar.

After we enjoyed a few more richly accompanied songs, the band left the stage, leaving Marling with the audience to herself. This was without doubt the highlight of the show. Dimmed lights and just her new temperamental ‘big dog’ guitar made Marling the sole focus; the vastness of the venue was no longer apparent. We were treated to new song Master Hunter, but renditions of Ghosts and Alas, I Cannot Swim reminded us of how Marling has progressed as an artist since her debut; they sounded so light and care-free compared to the darker elements present in her latest album.

Blackberry Stone was a standout moment, the accompaniment building from just the cello to the whole band once more, and was truly beautiful to experience. Ending the set with the atmospheric I Speak Because I Can and Goodbye England (Covered in Snow), Marling appeared vulnerable yet somehow wise beyond her years. Laura Marling’s talent for creating a style of folk that feels fresh and relevant was showcased in this performance. However, the set was over far too quickly. Ending on a crescendo, Marling and her band departed, leaving the entire hall wanting more.

Words by Annabelle Collins

Micky Greaney @ Symphony Hall

Folk for Free is a monthly live music event held in the foyer bar at Symphony Hall, showcasing some of Birmingham’s finest singer-songwriter talent. This month the audience was treated to an hour with Micky Greaney, who the compare quipped in the introduction as ‘the best songwriter in Birmingham, except maybe for Ozzy.’

The Symphony Hall’s huge glass foyer entrance made an ideal backdrop to the performance. The hectic rush hour commotion of buses, mothers with prams, taxis and commuters outside the window somehow perfectly complimented his mellow, folk soft-rock ballads. The first half was just Greaney playing solo; his songs were admittedly very generic, all with comfortably familiar verse, bridge, chorus structures and gently resolving chords. Yet despite this, the performance was actually  genuinely affecting and moving.

Greaney has the shambling goateed gravitas to pull off a style of music that in the hands of a lesser writer or performer could come off as slightly cliqued sentimentality. It was perfectly formed song writing, albeit traditional. There were tender spooky moments when silence fell over the audience, even the children; the Symphony Hall became a calm oasis in the hectic town centre. There was one really standout Starsailor-esque song, Satellite, in which Greaney’s voice sounded something akin to Fleet Foxes vocalist Robin Pecknold and his haunting melodic hooks rolled over each other gracefully.

The folk soft-rock ballad, though it can be over earnest and sentimental, is an undeniably enduring genre and is a style that is perhaps unfairly ‘uncool’ now. However, there is a particular innocence in using the simple conventions of pop-rock. Melody seems to have fallen out of favour with our generation’s songwriters, which is a shame. These songs were beautifully affecting and Greaney’s simple bare bones, nuts and bolts craftsmanship of them drew a huge, warm, affectionate crowd. He also came out at the interval for a pint with the fans and was an utterly charming, humble bloke.

The second half premiered his swaggering new band. Complete with the usual pop-rock line-up of keys, bass and drums, they had the added extra of two female backing vocalists giving it a gospel vibe. The fidgeting children were captivated by the band. It soared through the vast foyer so most toes were tapping and heads bobbing by the second tune. Nevertheless, not everything had changed after the interval; there was yet another gorgeous ballad midway through with three part harmonies, ensuring that the audience were left smiling.

Words by James Grady

Nick Jurd Quartet @ Rush Hour Blues

Friday evenings in Birmingham always come with the promise of some spectacular entertainment in the form of Rush Hour Blues at Symphony Hall. Organised by Birmingham Jazz, this weekly session regularly features various jazz and blues artists from the city and further afield. The latest performance was from talented young bass player Nick Jurd, appearing in his quartet alongside other former Birmingham Conservatoire students.

The group displayed a captivating sense of unity in their set, performing a range of Jurd’s original compositions as well as inspired renditions of jazz standards. Mostly, their repertoire was ballad-like or medium swing paced, lulling the audience into a meditative state and providing a welcome contrast from the frenetic rush hour traffic seen through the foyer’s ceiling-high windows. Even some of the busier samba-feel numbers provided a laid-back sense of contemplation.

Despite the overall relaxed state of the music, many of the quartet’s pieces enclosed fascinatingly frenetic improvisation from each of the band. Nick Jurd in particular demonstrated skilful use of the higher register of his double bass, producing solos both melodically and rhythmically captivating. Alto saxophonist Rachel Cohen often chose a more sustained and emotive style her solos, whilst trumpeter Sam Wooster displayed both subtlety and ferocity in his playing, effectively combining with perfectly placed rhythmic interaction from Jim Bashford on drum kit.

Jurd’s softly spoken introduction to each tune and acknowledgement of his fellow musicians did much to maintain the mellow tone of the gig. One particular tune that will undoubtedly hit home with students of many different disciplines was Jurd’s own composition ‘Sorted’, a piece he recounts writing after graduating. This piece was, in line with the rest of the set, of a smooth, unrushed tempo, yet still expressed excitement: as he explained, it reflects a sense of accomplishment and an undeniable taste of freedom.

Interestingly for a band of this size, the quartet did not contain any chordal instruments such as a piano or guitar as would be expected to complete the texture of a traditional jazz combo. This lack of chords was slightly unusual to the ear at first, but as the set went on this supposed gap in the texture actually created a unique sense of space in the music: this allowed the subtleties of harmony from the bass and horn instruments to shine.

Nick Jurd and his quartet undeniably transfixed the large crowd that frequents the Rush Hour Blues sessions. With a captivating blend of precision playing and musical ingenuity, the group brought a tranquil end to the day in the otherwise bustling city centre. The next Rush Hour Blues instalment will feature the MHJQ Jazz Blues Trio on Friday 3rd February, 5.30-7pm. Admission is free, so there really isn’t a more ideal way to end your week.

Words by Anna Lumsden