It’s rather fun to arrive at a gig with only the vaguest intuition of what the music might sound like. I’ll confess I had only the faintest impression of what the trio Vein might be about (European jazz, maybe a bit left field?) but their guest Dave Liebman, ex-Miles sideman and a fully fledged innovator and adventurer in his own right, was both a vote of confidence and a draw. And a hint that there might be a few exploratory abstractions in the music. I panted into the hall almost late to find the respectable sized audience settling and the band having a team talk by the stage shuffling large piles of manuscript (not a completely free improv gig then).
Pianist Michael Arbenz started proceedings with rippling, florid arpeggios rolling up and down the piano and sketching out abstract sounding runs. Then gradually some familiar phrases poked through the layers of sound and by the time brother Florian Arbenz’s rustles and sizzles from the drums took shape and Thomas Lahn‘s bass was nudging things along with fragmentary phrases and pushes, Stella by Starlight was breezing along. Classic standards was not what I’d expected. With Liebman digging in, mining the harmony and stretching the range of the soprano it was a brush away the cobwebs opener. There were plenty of originals in the two sets. Florian Arbenz’s Climbing had blizzards of notes from the sax, with calmer episodes punctuating grooving section. Evolution did as it names suggests moving through racing swing and sinuous sax lines for its theme and creating little clearings for each of the quartet to feature. And then another classic standard, I loves You Porgy, with Liebman bending notes and sliding around the melody making it a fiercely emotional reading with the piano rippling around him. The second set showcased a varied set of originals, mostly from a new release with Dave Liebman. Black Tortoise‘s dreamy melody floated on thick swirling harmony form the piano before the first of a number of dazzling melodic solos from Lahn on bass. Jamming in the Children’s Corner had a funky edge to it with spiky phrases from the sax outlining the theme before once again an imaginary spotlight seemed to swing from first one player to the next whilst the whole band seemed to solo. Clear Light was a delight with a tumbling rubato momentum maintained throughout and bewitching passage on a wooden whistle from Liebman.
What an absorbing evening’s music this was, making what was superficially, stylistically familiar sound somehow a collective and quirky effort. Sometimes they were a classic piano trio, or blazing quartet, then a contemporary trio of equals demolishing a theme, then a freewheeling improvising unit. Mysteriously, I think this may have been one of a few, if not their only date in UK on this trip. Well done St. George’s for lassooing them.