John Fordham 

Take five: John Fordham’s month in jazz – June

In the third of a series of monthly columns, John Fordham picks his musical milestones from recent weeks, and suggests a few to come. Tell us if we've missed anything, plus what you'd like to see in next month's column
  
  

1) Robert Glasper

June sees one of the UK's best-established international jazz festivals opening for its 26th year. The Glasgow jazz festival runs from 27 June to 2 July, with that majestic saxophone sermoniser Pharoah Sanders the opening night star (he's also at Ronnie Scott's on 2-3 July). But perhaps the biggest deal for many will be the presence of the sensational American pianist – and Mos Def producer – Robert Glasper, bringing the genre-bending Experiment band that anchored his Black Radio album earlier this year.

The story of Glasper's recent and remarkable 48 hours in London will have done plenty to heat up Glaswegian expectation. During their May performance at the Barbican, Glasper's group and the packed house were sharing such a good time that the pianist not only stretched his set from 90 minutes to three hours, but declared mid-show that he'd perform an unscheduled gig anywhere in town that would have him the next night. The pop-up gig at Hoxton's Village Underground (which wound up spanning everything from cutting-edge jazz to Gnarls Barkley's Crazy) was fixed before the Barbican show was even over. Here's a little of what all the fuss at the Barbican was about, on a track called Ah Yeah – brought to us courtesy of Radio 3's Jazz on 3, which recorded the whole shebang.

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2) Zhenya Strigalev

The young Russian alto saxophonist Zhenya Strigalev has lived and worked in Britain for eight years (since his arrival on a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music), and he's a fascinating old-school/cutting-edge hybrid, with a formidable bebop-rooted sax technique, a burgeoning talent for composition, and an engaging willingness to take a chance. For his recent Smiling Organizm album, Strigalev hired none other than Brad Mehldau's bassist Larry Grenadier and Charles Lloyd's dazzling drummer Eric Harland, with Britain's gifted Liam Noble on piano. The full A-list team didn't attend the saxophonist's four CD-launch gigs at Charlie Wright's club in mid-June, but locals Noble and trumpeter Steve Fishwick made trenchant contributions, and there was a pretty formidable American contingent in bass guitarist Tim Lefebvre, drummer Obed Calvaire, and the energetic London-resident American double bassist Mike Janisch, whose Whirlwind label put out the new CD. Strigalev's compositional mix of wry Russian laments, full on Jackie McLean-reminiscent bebop, free-improv and hip-hop grooves is a work in progress, but a very promising one. Here's a typical track from the album – and a typical Strigalev title, Anchovies.

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3) George Gershwin anniversary

Any month seems like a good one to reprise a jazz genius interpreting a magical theme, and since the 75th anniversary of George Gershwin's death is looming – on July 11 – it feels like a good enough excuse to recall once again how Miles Davis and arranger Gil Evans interpreted Gershwin's Summertime, from the composer's great jazz opera Porgy and Bess. It's an object lesson in how jazz musicians transform a classic melody while cherishing it.

Gil Evans once observed that there were three people collaborating on that 1958 session – himself, Miles, and the spirit of Gershwin, who had died of a brain tumour two decades earlier aged only 38. Gershwin wasn't exclusively a jazz composer as Evans was, but he and the hugely successful "symphonic-jazz" bandleader Paul Whiteman had shared a bold belief – for the 20s – that the methods of jazz musicians and European classical composers might one day be brought together. Despite the 20s being dubbed the Jazz Age, jazz wasn't defined by the sound of its founding genius Louis Armstrong for most white audiences – because he was playing black nightclubs in Chicago at the time. Gershwin and Whiteman spliced the world of the foxtrot and the light classic to the hot and funky one coming up from New Orleans – of the waywardly syncopated beat, the suggestively slurred note, and the blues. The effect took a long time to work its way past racism and the entrenched positions of cultural elites, and it still hasn't entirely done so – but George Gershwin had an incalculable effect on the musical transformations of the 20th century.

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4) Abram Wilson

A much more recent early death, and at the same age as Gershwin, was that of the New Orleans-raised, London-based trumpeter, singer, composer and teacher Abram Wilson – who sadly died of cancer on 9 June. Wilson was articulate, charming, gifted and entertaining, the kind of jazz musician who made friends for the music everywhere he went, for listeners from nine to 90. Like Wynton Marsalis, with whom he shared a hometown, Wilson had an agile trumpet technique with a full, glowing tone, startling originality of phrasing, and a profound knowledge of jazz tradition. Wilson loved soul and R&B as well as jazz (as a child, he had learned to play the songs of Stevie Wonder, the Commodores or Sister Sledge while sitting in the family's garage with the horn and a radio) and that inclusiveness came out in his work – notably in his bass-playing mentor Gary Crosby's popular ska-jazz-soul ensemble Jazz Jamaica. He was also devoted to storytelling in music – as in his 2006 extended composition Ride! – Ferris Wheel to the Modern Day Delta, which told the tale of a jazz musician who tries to hit the hip-hop big time but eventually returns to his roots. Here's a typical example from that project – After the Storm. Rest in peace, Abram.

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5) Pat Metheny Unity Band

Last, but definitely not least, comes the enduringly creative guitar hero Pat Metheny, who visits London's Barbican on July 8 with the first group he's led in more than 30 years with a sax-player in it. Metheny brings his dynamic regular drummer Antonio Sanchez, formidable new bass discovery Ben Williams – and Chris Potter, one of the most acclaimed post-bop improvisers of the last 20 years – on saxes and bass clarinet.

The Unity Band album features a new Metheny repertoire, but the guitarist has unhesitatingly acknowledged the importance of the last sax ensemble he led – with the late Michael Brecker and Dewey Redman, who performed on the powerful double-album 80/81. Intriguingly, Metheny has said it was the omnipresence of horn-players in jazz during his formative years in the 60s that made him favour lineups that didn't include any – and if anyone developed a hugely influential rock and Latin-influenced jazz sound without brass or reeds in the ensuing years, it has certainly been him. The Unity Band draws on all Metheny's wealth of experience in jazz, Latin music and funk, but 80/81 paid explicit homage to the mercurial melodic spirit of Ornette Coleman. Here's how, on Metheny's Colemanesque title track.

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