Jazzata ringing the changes – Alex Merritt, Freight Train

The transport and travel metaphors were worked hard in publicity ahead of Freight Train‘s appearance in Bristol last week. It did the trick: The trio of percussionist Paul Clarvis, Irish chanteuse Cathy Jordan and pianist Liam Noble played to a sizable and appreciative audience at the Bristol Beacon foyer.

A self-declared eclectic repertoire started with Chim Chiminy, launched into a bustling and rhythmically descriptive Freight Train before Jordan switched from rasp to honey as they glided through a wistful and elegaic hymn. A clutch of Mose Allison tunes followed, a nod to Clarvis’ former bandleader.

There were plenty of wryly delivered, unlikely covers in the two sets, but it was when there was space to stretch a bit and interpolate the trio really fizzed. Noble channeling Mose Allison tunes was something to behold. He was blusey and grooved hard, but there was an edgy skein there as spikey lines and dissonant chords insinuated themselves into the flow. Some waltzes with a country tinge came next delivered with affecting romanticism, then subtly subverted by a woozy electric piano squeezing and bending the sound. There was plenty more, the Freight Train slaloming effortless between styles and Jordan sounding one minute like a bawdy rocker, the next spinning quiet spells with crystalline vocal. The Isle of Innisfree was a particular standout moment, Noble’s accompaniment spreading gently around the vocal, cushioned by Clarvis’ continuously inventive percussion.

The gig was the first in 2023 of the series promoted by Ian Storrer under the Jazzata banner. The common thread is the quality of the bands, the diet is hugely varied.

The last gig of 2022 drew on the local quality (all with national profiles) for a new quartet led by Alex Merritt. Tenorist and composer Merritt set the pattern with repertoire drawn from Joe Henderson, Coltrane, Strayhorn, Bill Evans leavened by his own originals at least a couple of which seemed to be kind of contrafracts; distorted standards (and heavily punned titles). The territory was explored with energy and verve by a Jason Rebello on piano, Will Harris on bass, and Dave Smith on drums. The band were a great unit, Harris’ bass was propulsive and melodic, often pushing things on with little broken phrases. Two Joe Henderson pieces were followed by a spell-binding moody Time Remembered. Coltrane’s 5th House sparked a blistering post bop workout. Merritt’s compositions blended angular spikey lines, exploring abstruse ideas, whilst sitting on hooky rhythmic phrases. Just in Time-berlake and Sweet Hash Brown evoked explosive playing. Merritt’s own improvising had plenty of fire, but also an appealing thoughtfulness and space to breath. Rebello was on dazzling form, whether spinning a velvety atmosphere with Merritt on Bloodcount or blowing the roof off on the closing blues. It wasn’t confirmed, but this may have been one the band’s first gigs, in which case the message for 2023 will be look out for this lot and make sure you catch them!

The gigs continue into the spring at the Bristol Beacon, more details here

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