Spreading the Fringe: Iain Ballamy/ Ian Shaw/ Jamie Safir, Fringe Jazz, Wednesday 22nd September

Fringe Jazz is back. The weekly programme of gigs, engineered by Jonathan Taylor, started life in the tiny back room of The Bristol Fringe bar in Clifton a few years ago and established itself as a programme of apparently gravity defying quality given the size of the performance space, international recording artists and marquee names rubbing shoulders with the up and coming on a weekly basis. Re-emerging after the hiatus of the pandemic it’s the same Fringe Jazz, but its spread its wings a bit and is differently located.

Now in the performance space of Bristol Music Club, a long standing institution but better known in the classical world, there’s a bigger room available. What hasn’t changed is the quality of the music. This first gig was another of Iain Ballamy‘s seemingly endless intriguing collaborations. Vocalist Ian Shaw is surely a legend in his own right and pianist Jamie Safir represents a new generation of remarkable, versatile musicians. Safir got the benefit of another plus of the venue; he was able to choose between two (count ’em) full sized grands, and left the older Steinway bundled at the back of the stage in favour of the newer Boston.

Piano, sax and voice leaves a lot of space for invention and play and these three made full, glorious use of it. The material was ‘lovely songs’ as Ian Shaw put it, and these three pushed, pulled and re-packaged them so that they all glowed. What’s New, title track of their album released last year, drew us in, but the segue, carried by some vocal gymnastics from Shaw, took us into an atmospheric vamp and he wove the lyric of the Bacharach and David classic You’ll Never Get To Heaven around fluting lines from Ballamy and a sparse irresistible groove from Safir. The sense was of a conversation with everyone playing their part, even as the lyric and melodic hooks took centre stage at times. Shaw would spin off with a falsetto vocal flourish, a rhythmic nudge from Safir or a long spiralling line from Bellamy diverted the flow again. It might as well be spring got similar treatment and had a propulsive sense of swing without anyone marking time, the momentum just emerged from group feel and interplay. A piano sax duo of Pure Imagination launched the second set, Ballamy’s keening, fluid tenor giving it a new edge. A hairs-on-the-back of the neck reading of Wichita Lineman was a standout moment, a quietly rocking groove from Safir was gorgeously understated and Shaw’s delivery was all melancholic reverie. They finished on a bluesy romp, a trio that promised much and delivered more, finishing in time for the 10pm curfew.

Bristol Music Club, accessed down some steps just on a busy corner in Clifton, extends under old residential buildings and music has to stop by 10, but it leaves a bit of time for post-gig socialising at the bar. The sound in the performance room is remarkable. Something about it’s shape and height make the sound warm, present and balanced with only minimal boosting from mics. It made this launch gig of the new season a delight.

The programme for the next few weeks is here : https://www.fringejazz.com/gig-list.html . There’s space for a bigger audience, so let’s hope the support returns and swells for the good ship Fringe Jazz.

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