Dancing about Architecture: Appreciating Arguelles at the Hen & Chicken

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” . There’s a self-evident truth about this little saying (attribution is varied but see here for a bit of digging). Music is such an immediate experience. There’s no conscious processing or translation involved in experiencing it and your own response to it can be intensely physical as a result; hairs rise on the back of the neck, tears spring to the eyes. In a busy week since Julian Arguelles brought his Quartet to the Hen & Chicken I’ve been reflecting on this. Feelings an experience has evoked stay powerfully in the memory, and writing about that isn’t quite as paradoxical as dancing about architecture. A bit of the latter might be in order too, in trying to pin down why this saxophonist and composer’s music hits with such emotional force without being sentimental or melancholy.

First there’s that sound.  The tone and phrasing is unmistakeable. A flurry of notes and a little keening swoop at the top of a phrase are enough to catch your breath and sometimes set of a few butterflies in the stomach. No-one sounds quite like it. Some of his compositions sound as if they are written around this with characteristic repeated phrases giving an urgency and anticipation to tunes.  Phaedrus, one of my favourites, captures this and launched the gig as it did the last time I saw them at the Con Cellar Bar in the London Jazz Festival last year  captured on video here.

Then there’s the content.  Julian is a writer and a prolific one. He expresses himself through the structures and harmonies he creates for musicians as well as through the immediacy of performance. The first set drew on arrangements of Spanish folk music, intriguing structures conceived for a trio and underneath it plenty of rocky, swinging gospelly pulses and progressions to raise the excitement levels. ‘Piece for D’ was raucous with honking tenor, ‘A life long Moment a sumptuous ballad’.   Time and again a shift of metre or an ascending bass line would set the adrenalin racing or prompt an emotional lurch of the stomach.

And then the band. The musicians, Kit Downes, Sam Lasserson and James Maddren are undoubtedly some of the finest on the scene at the moment and as a unit with Julian their interaction and response to the material is what created the magic. The second set, a suite of 8 or 9 tunes played without a break was a tour de force. The suite showcased the intricacies of the writing (‘fiendishly difficult’ may not have been a merely jokey description by Arguelles judging by the look on the band’s faces), but when a promised fugue finally emerged with unaccompanied piano starting it off, it turned out to have funky groove and produced some pyrothechnic soloing from pianist Downes to raise the hairs on the neck.

To describe the peerless improviser and composer leader, the phenonmenal band and the by turns rocky, swinging, flowing compositions is to name the elements that make this band special – a bit of dancing about the architecture. I’m remembering the emotions long after the gig: delight, joy , often a desire to dance and  a thread somehow acknowledging of pain and struggle. Why those? Well that’s the the paradox we started with perhaps, but it’s my response to great, creative musicians.


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