Mike Atkinson

Interview: Roy Ayers

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on December 23, 2013

Originally published in the Nottingham Post

Your current touring schedule looks insane. You’re playing a large number of countries this month alone, including three separate trips to the UK. Is this a typical month for you?

Whatever they present to me when they do the booking, I just go along with it. I’ve been doing this for many years, and I’m 73 now. So it’s no problem; it’s great.

It’s the sort of schedule that could exhaust a man half your age. How do you maintain your energy levels?

I guess I maintain it by eating the right foods and staying healthy, not using alcohol or drugs, or anything like that. I keep my body clean; that’s the key to a healthy life.

Are you the sort of person that likes to get out and about, exploring each city you visit?

When I was young, but I don’t do that anymore. With most of the cities I’ve been to, I’ve travelled to them many times. I’ve been to Paris many times, and to London many, many times. So I don’t hang out anymore. It’s not even a thrill anymore. I just enjoy performing and sleeping and travelling.

Are there any places you’ve not yet played, that you would still like to visit?

The only place I haven’t been is most of the Middle Eastern countries. That’s because so many of them are having problems, like Syria and Egypt. I always wanted to go to Egypt. But I’ve been to almost every other country in the world. I’ve been to China, Russia, Brazil, and of course I work a lot in the USA.

How does your instrument, the vibraphone, handle all the travel? Is it a robust instrument?

I play a vibraphone called KAT. It’s small like a piano. It’s not huge, like the big vibraphone, so it’s easy to handle. Not only do I get the vibraphone sound, but I also get all kinds of synthesiser sounds. It’s very handy, very easy and portable.

How did you first start learning to play the vibraphone?

I got all of my musical training through Mr Samuel Browne, my high school teacher. He taught me musical history, and of course harmony. I graduated from there in 1958. And of course I’ve played with so many great artists. I went on to play with Herbie Mann, which was when I really started to get international recognition. I’ve worked with people like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Henderson from the Jazz Crusaders. I’ve recorded with Rick James, and I’ve done albums with George Benson. There’s so many great artists that I been with, like Guru’s Jazzmatazz and Donald Byrd, and I’m continuing to have a wonderful career.

Is the vibraphone difficult to learn?

It’s a difficult instrument, because it requires balance. When I was a little younger, I used to experiment with things. I used to put a towel over the top and play to people, because I remember where all the notes are. I got my first set of vibraphone mallets from Lionel Hampton when I was five years old, so I always wanted to be like Lionel Hampton. At one time, when I was very young, I was thinking I was going to be Lionel Hampton. When I grew up, my mother and father always played his music, so I was reared on Lionel Hampton.

Your music has never gone out of style. With some other artists, the audience will get older as they get older, but it’s not the case with you. You keep getting new generations turning up to your shows. Does that surprise you?

No, it doesn’t. It makes me feel good. As it happens, I have more sampled hits than anyone else in the music industry. It really made me feel good when they told me that. I have maybe 44, 45 songs that have been sampled by hip hop artists, and most of the songs that have been sampled have been hits, which is wonderful.

You’ve always been musically broad-minded. You’ve embraced jazz-funk, disco, Afrobeat, hip hop and house music. I’d like to know about your collaboration with the late Fela Kuti. What was it like, working with him?

It was a pleasure working with Fela Kuti in Nigeria. I spent almost a month over there with him. He was a mystery genius, because he taught his band, all of them, how to play in jail. He was a truly remarkable individual. Musically he was very on top of it, and he was a nice guy. I still have a couple of gigs that I did with him on video, in 1979. It’s never been seen, but it’s something that I plan on issuing later on. I have it in New York.

You’ve also worked with house musicians such as Masters At Work and Kerri Chandler. What was your first introduction to house music?

They come up with so much stuff over there in England, and that’s where I was exposed to it. I heard about it in New York, but I really heard about it on a much more popular level in England. It was so interesting to have all those kinds of transitions coming through my ears, because music continues to grow, and new expressions are happening, and I still continue to have a good time exploring new innovations.

What kind of band leader are you? Are you from the James Brown school of strict discipline, or are you more laidback?

I’m from the Herbie Mann school. He was the best leader that I’ve ever been with, and I run my band the same way. He was not very strict, but he was very organised and very together. He took care of business, and everybody got paid.

Do you always keep to the same set list, or are you open to requests?

Sometimes, in the middle of the show. I don’t mind them, if I have them planned. But sometimes people call for songs that I don’t retain any more; I’ve done 86 albums!

If I was asking for a song, it would be We Live In Brooklyn, Baby. Is that part of your repertoire?

We do that every night. We sing, “We live in Brooklyn baby, we’re trying to make it baby”, and then later on in the song we sing “We shop at Tesco’s, baby!”

Can’t Stop Won’t Stop and Goodtimes present Roy Ayers & Ubiquity live at The Approach on Sunday December 22.

Curating Sound Performance – Nottingham Park Tunnel, Thursday December 12

Posted in gigs, LeftLion by Mike A on December 23, 2013

Originally published in LeftLion

Completed in May 1855, under the supervision of architect Thomas Chambers Hine, the Park Tunnel instantly became something of a white elephant. Although it had been planned as a main carriageway from Derby Road into the Park Estate, more convenient routes had already been constructed, and the expected traffic never materialised. Even to this day, it remains an obscurity, its street-side entrance obscured by apartment blocks and a car park.

However, as Nottingham Contemporary successfully demonstrated on a cold, drizzly December evening, this vast sandstone hollow has much to offer as a unique performance space. Illuminated after dark, for those few pedestrians who know of its existence, and with a naturally resonant acoustic, the tunnel turns out to be tailor-made for live music.

Around a hundred gathered for the free show. Folding chairs were provided, and a mulled wine and mince pie stall did brisk business. A health and safety announcement was made, but the designated fire exits couldn’t have been more self-evident. Hello, it’s a tunnel.

———

The bill began with Plain, shift, plane: the first of three improvised pieces, all conceived as specific responses to the tunnel space. Described as presenting “constellations of selected sets of pitch clusters”, it took the form of a dialogue between Rebecca Lee’s flute and Jack Harris’s sine tones, with the tunnel itself cast as the mediating third party.

Lee sounded each call, with a series of long, sustained flute tones; Harris would then provide a response, mirroring the natural sine waves of the flute with an electronic counterpart. Sometimes the tones were equally pitched, fusing into one as the instruments changed over, leaving Lee to complete each cycle. At other times, Lee would go much higher or much lower, extending the sonic range.

Stripped of melody and rhythm, the tones swayed in the air, shimmering and reverberating against the sandstone, and cutting themselves loose from any discernible sense of place. During certain passages, the sound felt all-enveloping, as if beamed from inside the listener’s head. At quieter moments, the steady, distant rumble of Derby Road traffic blended subtly into the mix.

A lone pedestrian stepped softly through the tunnel, past the performers and up to the street. Instead of breaking the spell, his footsteps somehow augmented the experience, nudging us into a fuller appreciation of the space.

———

“Before I begin, I just want to…”

Hunched over his smartphone, a loudspeaker strapped to his back, Phillip Henderson wandered off from us, inaudibly muttering his way up the tunnel’s incline. At the top, he turned around – “Sorry, sorry” – and commenced his return journey. Was this bumbling ineptitude, or an integral part of Maximal Cluster, his ten-minute performance piece? Almost certainly, it was the latter.

As Henderson paced the full length of the crypt-like space – down and up, then down again and up again, briefly conversing with the clipboard-and-programmes attendant at the bottom, but mostly resembling a pre-occupied academic checking his emails – the “Ion Block Rocker Bluetooth” on his back amplified the sounds generated by his constant smartphone key-taps.

These sounds – booming sub-bass rumbles for the most part, topped with high-pitched shrieks – filled the tunnel from top to bottom, no matter where Henderson happened to be at the time. As he stepped directly past you, they would briefly come into sharper focus, before dissolving back into infinite loops of echo. It was all too much for the pigeons at the top end, who surrendered their perches en masse.

Back in the centre, the performer casually scraped his shoe across the gravel a few times, signalling the end of the recital. His demeanour was deceptive. This had been a carefully researched exploration of the site’s sonic capabilities, where the tunnel became “not just an arena for sound art, but the instrument that we all get into”, and the performance became “a perfect opportunity to bring out the infinite maximal colours from inside the earth”.

———

No stranger to the process of exploring “the extreme acoustics of very resonant spaces”, John Butcher presented a two-part improvisation for tenor and soprano saxophone, intended to generate “an encounter between a musician and a place that gives a fighting chance to drawing something new from both of them”.

Arguably the most challenging, but ultimately the most rewarding performance of the night, The Geometry of Sentiment stalked the outer reaches of free jazz improv, as Butcher conjured a constantly shape-shifting, endlessly unpredictable riot of sound from his instruments, with a bracing disregard for conventional modes of playing.

Primitive and evolved in equal measure, Butcher’s playing pitched the unfettered explorations of a child against the studied technique of a pro, with startling results: sucking, wheezing, rasping, yelping and bellowing, sometimes tapping his reed against his tongue, sometimes bursting into glorious melodic flurries that could have been sourced from Gershwin, before instantly subverting them, like a crazed scratch DJ.

As if in solidarity with the pigeons, one listener made a mid-set exit. Turning towards the departing figure, Butcher’s sax fell into puttering, satirical step with the footfalls. The audience giggled, gently. Their concluding applause was hearty, warm and sustained.

———

Fifteen minutes later, reaching for my keys on a quiet road, I became newly fascinated by their jangle. Pausing at the front door, I jiggled them in my palm, savouring the rhythms they created. Evidently, the spell had yet to be fully broken. Perhaps other artists will soon find equally innovative ways of tapping into the Park Tunnel’s power, and expanding a few more perceptions in the process.

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Kagoule, Hang, Bluebird – Nottingham Lacehouse, Friday December 6

Posted in gigs, Lacehouse, Nottingham Post by Mike A on December 23, 2013

Originally published in the Nottingham Post

For the first date of Kagoule’s UK tour, which will take them as far afield as Aberdeen and Brighton, the teenage alt-rock trio opted to play a special gig in the basement of the Lacehouse. While the bar’s regular Friday night crowd hopped around upstairs to cheesy Eighties hits, the basement filled with a markedly different set of punters, who thronged around a central performance space.

In the middle of the room, the three bands on the bill – Kagoule, Hang and Bluebird – performed in the round, facing each other, their monitors arranged inwards. Rope lighting marked out the boundaries of their zone, giving the cellar a crypt-like feel.

For the audience, this was a chance for an up-close and personal experience, which gave us an extra focus on the dynamics between the players. The volume might have been skull-crushingly loud, but the experience was curiously, and thrillingly, intimate.

Bluebird are a young band, who haven’t been performing for long, but they’re already impressively tight. Offering a fresh take on classic emo, their songs navigated complex twists and turns, stops and starts. Hopefully we’ll be seeing a lot more of them in 2014.

Hang started their set with a basic, chugging two-chord riff, which seemed like it would never end. It formed the starting point for a uniquely immersive set, performed as one continuous instrumental piece. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the riff twisted into new shapes. As the guitar and bass kept a steady pulse, and the keyboards added sonic texture, the drummer was left free to roam, adding rhythmic colour to the hypnotic groove.
Pitched halfway between Hawkwind and Hookworms, and tempered with Krautrock’s unflashy precision, Hang’s set was utterly spellbinding.

It has been almost two years since Kagoule burst onto the Nottingham scene, with their landmark appearance at Rock City with Dog Is Dead – and yet the band members are still only just old enough to order beers at the bar. Having completed their education over the summer, Cai Burns (lead vocals, guitar), Lucy Hatter (bass) and Lawrence English (drums) are now free to concentrate on the band full-time, building on all the promise which they have consistently shown.

Inspired by Nineties alt-rock, as pioneered by the likes of Fugazi, Nirvana and Unwound, Kagoule breathe new life into the genre. Opening with Monarchy – their oldest song, written by Cai at the age of fifteen – they tore into their set with visceral power. Brought forward from his usual place at the back of the stage, Lawrence’s brilliant drumming was dragged right into the centre of the storm, underpinning Cai and Lucy’s instinctive chemistry.

The intensity lightened for the comparatively gentle Made In Concrete, before rising to new heights for new single Adjust The Way, perhaps their heaviest track to date. Encoring with a track so new that Cai apologised in advance for not remembering its words, Kagoule drew thunderous applause from the hometown crowd. If the staging had been an experiment, then it had paid off handsomely. Let’s hope that more city bands follow their example.

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Jake Bugg – Shangri La

Posted in album reviews, LeftLion by Mike A on December 23, 2013

Originally published in LeftLion magazine
Like his Sixties heroes, Jake Bugg prefers to bash his music out quickly. Recorded in a fortnight, Shangri-La emerges just thirteen months after his début, and there’s a similar urgency to its opening volley of rattling, skiffly bangers. The scope widens as the album unfolds, but there are fewer all-acoustic moments, as the plaintive folkie of two years ago steps further into rockier territory.

Dismissed by some as overly conservative, he’s best viewed as a classicist, using vintage stylings to express present-day concerns. Some new influences emerge, ranging from What Doesn’t Kill You’s three-chord punk thrash to the Neil Young flavourings of All Your Reasons, but Jake’s jaundiced view of his hometown is unchanged: “speed bump city” has become Slumville (“this place is just not for me, I say it all the time”), and “messed up kids” are still dealing blow on the corner. One day, he might yet pay tribute to our proud lace-making heritage and our vibrant creative business hubs – but you wouldn’t want to bet on it.

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Ashmore – The Ashmore Show (album)

Posted in album reviews, LeftLion by Mike A on December 23, 2013

Originally published in LeftLion magazine
Edging onto the margins of the city’s hip-hop scene, Ashmore’s laid-back quirkiness marks him out from the pack. He’s a loose-limbed rhymer with a characterful beatnik style, who first attracted attention with the album’s loping, swampy title track. “I’m not like the other folk, I’ve got nothing to prove”, he declares, with a half-sung, half-rapped delivery and a confidential manner which draws the listener close. Elsewhere, Misfit draws on swirling Balkan gypsy jazz, as does The Rebellious Jiggle, while Scribbling & Dribbling warns that “I’m the type of guy to steal your soul, and eat your rolls while listening to Nat King Cole”. Sampling the perky theme tune from I Dream Of Jeannie, a 1960s TV comedy show, Yah Get Meh is Notts to its core. It’s followed by BeatyWeaty – featuring the mandatory Motormouf guest spot – before Brick By Brick’s pissed-off social commentary wraps up this thoroughly likeable debut.

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