My Bristol week: From Craig Handy to Thelonius

As if last Friday’s outing to see Entropi wasn’t enough, catching Craig Handy mid-tour with a mouth-watering quartet at the Hen and Chicken on Sunday was followed on Wendesday by Thelonius celebrating the centenary of their eponymous inspiration at The Fringe. Soaking up the music and earning a crust has meant I’ve yet to reflect on either gig here, so an edited highlights is what follows.   It’s hard to imagine any city in the world hosting anything better than these two gigs as part of the week’s routine fare. There was also a connection, in my mind, between them. Both transparently drew on an in-the-very-marrow familiarity with jazz from bebop onwards and everything that has flowed from it, coupled with dazzling improvisation, so that the most familiar of material had zest and IMG_2571life and freshness.  Yup, it’s been quite a week.

Handy toured with Herbie Hancock in the mid 90s playing the New Standards material, was in the legendary Betty Carter’s band, has been a fixture in the Mingus Big Band including stints as MD.  It shouldn’t be a surprising then if his sound, choice of phrase, instinct for a mischievous quote or reference sounds, whilst still being his own, as if it comes from a long line of greats, .  It was gripping, it just oozed out of him. He was clearly enjoying the company of Jonathan Gee on piano, Nicola Sabato on bass and Rod Youngs on drums.  This wasn’t a grab you by the throat and shower you with notes session, but oh my it was grooving. Cedar Walton’s Holy Land was an easy medium swing tempo and as Handy layered phrase upon phrase, building momentum the band stoked it with him. It was like sitting on a gradually swelling ocean wave; quite exhilarating.  Rod Youngs was a delight, much of that energy coming from pushy, minimal strokes of his cymbal.  The two sets were mostly standards with a couple of Handy originals and the easy fluency was a thrill.  As we crept out (a case of catching the last bus syndrome), What’s New was just fading. We’d hung on every swoop and flutter of the melody. It was easy to imagine echoes of Coltrane or Dexter Gordon playing the ballad, but that’s because they’re surely in Handy’s the musical bloodstream.

Thelonius were drinking from the same well, but restricting themselves exclusively to compositions by Monk himself as Calum Gourlay reminded the full to over-flowing Fringe  before a note was played (just in case we were there under false pretenses). They kicked of with Epistrophy and the easy swing and Monk’s instantly catchy but typically off-kilter theme grabbed the ears. Hans Koller was on keys for this tune (he played valve trombone for most of the evening) and assembled a solo that was like shards of glass, all angles and dissonant fragments. A great start. This band, with Martin Speake on alto and for this gig the peer-less Jeff Williams on drums, have been playing weekly at times at the Vortex exploring the Monk canon. There’s always the possibility of deconstruction and radical re-interpretation in a project like this, but they approach the tunes with great fidelity to the original compositions in tempo and feel. They are each formidable improvisers and composers in their own right and the exploration of the tunes is from the inside out. Williams threatened to steal the show early on with a riveting, melodic solo on Teo. For Gourlay, the band frequently just laid out and he gave a hint of why a solo bass set from him might be a treat somehow evoking the harmony and sounding like an entire rhythm section as he played off Monk’s themes..  Koller is a a top drawer pianist, so hearing where his mind takes him with just a single line to pursue on the trombone , without the added  harmonic possibilities of the keyboard was fascinating.  There’s a  muted, fragile air to his tone adding a vulnerable almost melancholic edge to his playing.  His trombone and Speake’s alto blended and interacted beautifully and gave Round Midnight a fresh twist.  It was, as Gourlay again, reminded us the day after Monk’s would-have-been 100th birthday.   It was a delicious homage.

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