An expectant buzz greeted us as we settled onto our favoured bench at the back of the Wine Vaults on Thursday. Tonight’s first gig of the season, timings contrained by the schedule of London bound trains, was none other than Byron Wallen joining the Jazz House trio. Wallen’s CV threatened to overwhelm as Tony Clark did his usual witty introductions, but he did highlight the diverse scope of our guest’s interests from classic jazz through various world and african idioms, so it was a hard to know what to expect.
The opener, Monk’s ‘I mean you’ set the direction pretty clearly. We got a tour of Byron Wallen’s jazz roots and inspirations, with influences and (recorded) mentors name checked – Woody Shaw, Clifford Brown – and compositions and choice of standards giving a dramatic illustration of his versatility from the modal like, post bop burner (For Wood), deeply jazzy contemporary composition (Merry go round) and tender, beautifully constructed ballad (Home Truth). In between were standards some re-imagined ( Bye Bye Blackbird as New Orleans shuffle) some played in familiar style. Wallen’s solos, although generally quite brief, were lovely fluent, balanced improvisations that always left us wanting more (even when he fluffed a few of the more frenetic themes a bit … Donna Lee and his own For Wood – it was a cold night out!). And once again, the house band rose to the occasion. Presented with unfamiliar music on the night each had their moments in the spotlight; Wade on ‘merry go round’ linked solos together with his own, Trevor had a few features, especially on a couple of more ‘worldy’ grooves and Vyv seemed on fire, really pulling one out on Byron’s ballad Home Truth, delighting the composer as well as the audience. So this was a great start to the season, with a gig that simmered nicely and then came to the boil with a rousing encore of Don’t stop the Carnival.