January has brought some icy blasts with it, so the warm caressing tone of Iain Ballamy’s sax was a ‘balm to the soul’ welcome as we stumbled down the stairs to the cellar bar and to a session that will surely soon be able to add ‘longest running’ to ‘top’ in the list of adjectives that describe the Wade Edwards’ house band plus guest, fortnightly gig. Ballamy has become a regular if not frequent visitor but whilst his guest sessions may lean on the standards jazz repertoire, they are deliciously unpredictable and to take him for granted would be a mistake. He’s an ECM recording artist (one of the most iconic jazz labels and home to Keith Jarrett amongst many others for nearly 40 years). He’s feted around Europe and appears in ambient elctronica ensembles, uncategorisable sublime jazz- folk crossovers, a burning contemporary jazz band the legendary Loose Tubes anarchic big band – the list goes on. You never quiet know what’s coming next, and the Jazz House Trio (Wade, Vyv Hope Scott and Trevor Davies) certainly didn’t as Iain decided on the spot what to play next and frequently how (instant arrangements either demonstrated or hurriedly whispered as they started). It didn’t matter though. At the centre of it was Ballamy’s sound, sketching out whispy melodic lines with a crackly almost hoarse sound in the upper register that speaks straight to the heart. Desafindao welcomed us in, a gorgeous statement of the theme that had the packed in audience applauding as if it was a grandstanding solo. An extraordinary arrangement of East of the Sun had a single throbbing note under half the theme, building tension until they slid into an easy free-wheeling swing , but setting a mood that sent the band off in new thoughtful directions. A Burt Baccharach classic, Wives and Lovers was an unexpected twist with a fluid out of time reading of the familiar tune preceding the breezy tempo established for the solos. The ‘we don’t know what’s coming next’ high wire act offered thrills and spills as Ballamy started the gorgeous Wayne Shorter ballad Myako in a different key to the rest of the band. But after a blistering Out of Nowhere, time stood still as he made Autumn in New York completely his own. This was a fantastic start to a new season at the Vaults. It’s a treasure of a gig with a house band that welcomes artists of international stature like Iain Ballamy as well as the best of a top class scene in area. Its good to see that Bath people know a good thing when they see it. Audiences are regularly healthy. Long may it remain so!
Iain Ballamy, St. James Wine Vaults, Thursday 8th January