I’ve been wondering whether the concept album has suddenly become popular in jazz ( listening first to Herbie Hancock’s Imagine Project and then Brad Mehldau’s Highway Rider for instance – links are to Guardian reviews ). It may be that I haven’t been paying attention of course, and its not new at all. But Tim Whitehead’s project, at Future inns as part of national tour, would fit right in. A suite of pieces inspired by the paintings of Turner (not Big Joe, but JMW Turner as one wag quipped in the interval) there was certainly a Concept, illustrated by projections of the paintings, advanced on cue throughout the evening by our own Jon Turney.
There was some sublime music in these two sets. The ballad ‘To be understood’ towards the end of the second set was a standout for me. Whitehead’s fluid sound on tenor, etching out a beautiful melody over stately chords with a faintly pastoral flavour seemed to capture something of that unforced blend of American jazz and European country and classical music that I find so stirring. I was moved. There were other great moments: a rollicking, wonky funk, New Orleans type shuffle early in the first set that raised a shout of approval from the crowd and a triplety dance like theme (with bohdran like percussion from Milo Fell on the drums to boot) to open the second set. If I have a reservation, its that the music wasn’t allowed to communicate on its own terms. There was a lot of explanation of the inspiration and construction to add to the very detailed article in the Guardian . We know that some of the tunes were harmonised and arranged free improvisations that he’d recorded– too much information? We were certainly left in no doubt how serious this all was. This was a formidable band with Liam Noble on piano and Patrick Bettison on bass. They moved easily between freely improvised sections and complex written parts. Not all of it worked for me. There was a slow march like piece that seemed to lose its way (one of those arranged spontaneous improvisation?), which contrasted all the more sharply with some of the near ecstatic playing on some tunes. And I wondered at Tim’s decision to stop playing the sax and half chant half sing some of the melodies in the second set. I left though, with that glorious haunting melody ringing in my ears and the memory of some fabulous textures, themes and searing improvisations. Less jaw jaw please Tim.