The audience, packed into The Bear’s back room like sardines, appeared all to be holding their breath as James Partridge wove an impassioned, growling baritone sax phrase through the changes of Duke Ellington’s Solitude. It was mid-way through the second set of a fizzing quintet gig. If the band wasn’t quite the one billed, the jazz was still top drawer. Friday’s gig at the BeBop Club was another great example of airlines conspiring to disrupt a gig, only to be defeated by the magic of new musical alliances formed at a moment’s notice (it’s happened before in Bristol). Hotly anticipated doesn’t quite cover the buzz around the return of the The Session. The New Orleans based band of young and already feted musicians wowed Bristol audiences last summer, including a hastily scheduled appearance at the BeBop Club in August. Their heady brew of hard swinging jazz, visceral New Orleans grooves and bang-up-to-date harmonic sensibility set the jazz grapevine buzzing and they are back this summer with a sprinkling of gigs and a residency at Musicfest Aberystwyth Big Band & Jazz Course
Friday was the inaugural gig, back at the BeBop, and the audience created a New Orleans – like atmosphere in temperature and humidity in the tiny club room with late arrivers disappointed and waiting their turn to cram in at the back. But bad weather back in the Crescent City meant that flights were delayed, so that only bass player Jason Weaver, pianist Andrew McGowan and ex-pat Englishman, saxophonist James Partridge were there on Friday, with hot young drummer Charles Burchell and trumpeter Steve Lands stranded the other side of the pond. The three who made it were in safe hands however. It’s a fairly badly kept secret that BeBop Club maestro Andy Hague has assembled a collection of charts and arrangements of near library proportions over the years, mining the repertoire of classic Blue Note era writers onwards as well as artful arrangements of standards. He’s also a very fine trumpeter. A quick call to local drummer Mark Whitlam who’s fast acquiring a national reputation in a variety of ensembles and a cracking quintet was assembled, with a repertoire covering Ellis Marsalis grooving New Orleans standards, irresistibly swinging fare from the pens of Tad Dameron, Bob Brookmeyer, Wayne Shorter and a sprinkling of classics from Ellington and the standards book. The magic emerged as the newly formed quintet explored the material together. The Session’s instinct for drama appeared as backing for solos sometimes dropped to minimal, giving them space to breath and build; Andy Hague reminded us (if we needed it) what a fine improviser he is, with solos on flugelhorn particularly, full of elegant phrases and warm toned flurries over Weaver’s driving, propulsive bass lines; Andrew McGowan’s angular and scattered phrases on piano accumulated to build exciting solos and a standout trio reading of the ballad I Want to Talk About You was greeted with roars of approval. With Bristol forming more regular links with New Orleans, this is a collaboration it would be great to see again. For Bristolians keen to see the The Session in full, they should be at the Hen and Chicken in early August.