Sunday night was at least the third, if not the fourth time, in the last 8 months that I’ve caught Iain Ballamy with exactly this line up of the peer-less Jason Rebello on piano, Percy Pursglove on bass (and we were all wishing a bit more of that sublime flugel horn) and, fast becoming everyone’s first choice, Mark Whitlam on drums. It’s a regular band now. They’ve been touring a bit recently, and the increasing familiarity with each other and the way they play the distinctive Ballamy material is palpable. When they appeared here in January, they were of course great, these are musicians who can meet for the first time and make nursery rhymes sound like masterpieces (and have been known to do just that!). Last night they showed they were evolving into something a bit special as a unit.
The material overlapped with those previous performance with the addition of some more Ballamy originals and arrangements. There were deconstructed standards, April in Paris anchored by a pulsing, pedalling bass riff was preceded by East of the Sun with an insistent, throbbing single note pushing it on. Sommen was a rhapsodic, evocative original, delivered rubato, and Poor Butterfly seemed to span jazz feels and sounds from the thirties to the present in a couple of choruses of Rebello’s solo.
The band were finishing each other’s sentences, phrases passed back and forth between Ballamy and Rebello, evolving or changing or shape; Pursglove and Whitlam were constantly finding bubbling or contrasting metres and rhythmic counterpoint that upped the tension.
An old Ballamy tune Strawberries, exemplified the freedom with which they were playing. There’s a strong, slightly yearning melody that unfolds and holds the piece together and carries it forward. There were was a looseness and playfulness about the way they played it last night, with riffs and scurrying runs pulling in different directions, but somehow holding it all together, as the piece bounced and rolled along. The tenor, bothered and nudged the piano with repeated, staccato notes, so that eventually Rebello reeled off in an unexpected direction, producing another explosive solo.
At the centre of two compelling sets, was the sound of Ballamy’s tenor, a pure toned cry, always in the service of melodies, even when they take diverting and unexpected turns. That clarity of sound and instinct for a tune is a thread that’s been sustained through a long career. Strawberries was on his first album, Balloon Man released in the eighties, the gorgeous, skipping Antimo, performed in the second set, a more recent composition. After what’s becoming a customary burn up to finish, Chick Corea’s You are Everything with Pursglove producing the flugel, they closed with a breathless re-working of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now an elegy for a friend.
With regular appearances locally, it’s easy to take for granted just how good these musicians are (international reputations notwithstanding) and how high the standards are they set themselves. Magical as this evening was, there’s a feeling that there’s still more to come from this band as they add and explore more material and stretch out even more. I can’t wait.