Iain Ballamy was back at the The Fringe in Bristol last week. He was last spotted there in March with largely the same line-up (Mark Whitlam on drums and Percy Pursglove on bass and occasional flugel horn), but this time it was Jason Rebello in the piano chair. Is Ballamy ‘cooking’ a new regular quartet here, even though he suggested this was the first time with exactly this membership? There was certainly an unmistakably Ballamy sound and sensibility, executed to thrilling effect by an extraordinary band, albeit with a few exchanges of raised eyebrows suggesting they’d just managed to stay on the road around some of the trickier corners in Ballamy’s arrangements and compositions.
Last time he was here, Ballamy was excited about having unearthed a Roman era metal statuette whilst out metal detecting. We got an update this time (it’s been formally checked out and verified) but I couldn’t help hearing his interest in ‘what lies beneath’ reflected in an approach to music. Standards took on strange shapes and dark, shifting tones appeared under familiar melodies: April in Paris was all bent out of shape, Nobody Else But Me was stripped down to its bare bones, long tones and a throbbing vamp, then the gaps were shaded in by Ballamy’s horn. It inspired exciting soloing.
Rebello seems in exceptional form at the moment, patiently building solos, that accumulate intensity and excitement as phrases, evolve, pile up and then tension breaks as dizzying runs spiral off. In other pieces, the restrained, old-fashioned but fiercely swinging Poor Butterfly he crafted a beautifully balanced, unshowy, but just-so improvisation.
Ballamy has been writing and there were a few new originals that infused the whole gig with an atmosphere. A piece with a theme that ebbed and flowed gave space for a singing, flourishing meditation from Rebello followed by an emotional ,percussive bass solo from Pursglove. It brought to the fore hints of traditional European melody and cadences that seem to bubble in the background, overlayed with more angular and dissonant flavours, emphasised when they played Strawberries, one from the earliest days of Ballamy’s catalogue. The music covered a lot bases, including a roaring samba fuelled finale on Chick Corea’s You Are Everything with Rebello driving them from the keyboard and Pursglove raising the roof with a blistering flugel solo. The whoops for more were rewarded with a take on Keith Jarrett’s Country that was another reminder of the roots of some this music that has a Nordic breeze at its back. Ballamy has forged a career spanning thirty years now making distinctive and original music. This quartet seems to be assembling a repertoire that draws together some of the more overtly jazzy and melodic threads of that journey. I hope we’re going to hear a lot more of them.
Anyone in Frome on Friday 14th September can get a dose, details here
A footnote about the Fringe: It may be one the smallest venues in Bristol, but it surely counts as one the most diverse, challenging and downright high quality programmes anywhere. It also seems to be a space that allows great artists to incubate projects. This Iain Ballamy band may be one. Andy Sheppard was doing it before he moved to Portugal. Percy Pursglove, Tony Orrell, Dan Moore are all regulars here for instance and bring projects, not to mention frequent visits by Paul Dunmall. Check out the programme here. Not shown on the website currently is a visit by a Dunmall Quintet with Hamid Drake on drums on 7th November. The first gig in October is a Jeff Williams Quartet with Kit Downes and Josh Arcoleo. What a treasure this weekly, pretty much all-year-round gig is.