Glasgow Jazz Festival reviews: Herschel 36 | Mulatu Astatke

Fiona Shepherd and Jim Gilchrist on two irresistible shows at the Glasgow Jazz Festival

Herschel 36

Herschel 36, Planetarium, Glasgow Science Centre ****

Saturday’s extraordinary event at Glasgow Science Centre’s Planetarium involved a 90-minute whizz round the cosmos, courtesy of 1920s-vintage cinematic effects and a bang up-to-the-minute electronic score performed by two well-known Scottish jazz musicians, pianist Paul Harrison and drummer Stuart Brown, in their digital duo guise as Herschel 36.

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They were launching their album Astrophysik, extracted from their live score, commissioned three years ago by the Bo’ness Hippodrome Festival of Silent Film, for the pioneering German epic Wunder Der Schöpfung – “Wonder of Creation”. The film must have had quite an impact on its audiences back in 1925, with its vision of “an audacious fantasy vessel” powered by “terrific electrical energy”, its sometimes quaintly, at times magnificently, imagined planets and surely the first cinematic depiction of weightless space travellers – all earnestly interspersed with Biblical references and quotations from Goethe.

As all this unfolded in sepia splendour on the planetarium dome, while Harrison and Brown played in near-darkness, the former stooped over his keyboards, Stuart ensconced within a percussion gantry not unlike something ET might have lashed together to phone home.

Their music was quite a voyage in itself, ranging from ethereal piano figures, celestially shimmering synths and passages of hymn-like awe, to full-blown cosmic thunder laced with sci-fi whines, while drums and percussion hissed and clanged, rolled and pummelled and at times worked up a formidable groove – jazz, Jim, but not as we know it; more part-improvised, cosmically sonorous music of the spheres. - Jim Gilchrist

Mulatu Astatke, Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow ****

There is something of the pied piper about Ethiopian jazz supremo Mulatu Astatke, a musician who brought his world music studies to bear on the development of Ethio-jazz in the 1970s, importing his chosen instruments, vibraphone and conga drums, into the sound to the delight of a generation of hip-hop and electronica artists who have sampled his irresistible wares.

Astatke’s sophisticated sonic stew works by stealth – at this sold out Glasgow Jazz Festival show applying a dreamy veneer to a mellow percussive foundation over which trumpeter Byron Wallen and saxophonist James Arben carved a free path.

His classic track Yekermo Sew, dropped early into proceedings, is as cool as anything Miles Davis produced at the turn of the 60s and a sublime entry point to his seamlessly woven spiritual sound. Astatke produced beautiful light but sonorous vibes on his own – layer on the shimmering percussion and burnished snake-hipped brass and the effect was entrancing. Later, he moved over to congas, leading a polyrhythmical odyssey which resolved into a tight blast of Afrofunk.

Cellist Danny Keane was a not so secret weapon in this musical travelogue, whether his raga-like playing was partnered with spare funky bass and warm electro jazz keyboardsor his dolorous, dramatic strokes were teamed with Astatke’s sibilant vibraphone in an ultra-slinky marriage of contemporary classical and sultry jazz.

Whatever the flavour, the audience could eventually no longer resist the lure of the dancefloor and congregated around the front of the stage to follow Astatke wherever he would lead. - Fiona Shepherd