Was that a deliberate typo on the booking page of Jazz Steps Nottingham’s website that turned this trio into Green – Grass and Rain (ey)? There was no sabotaging the quality of the music however. If you’re going to hook up with a kick ass New York rhythm section then you may as well go for the top drawer and Barry Green did just that when he recorded his just released Almost There trio album in New York with Drew Gress and Tom Rainey. Now there’s a short tour and my own roamings meant I was crossing their path in Nottingham.
The material expresses different sides of Green’s personality. From muted, glowing renditions of pop ballads and hymns, through tumbling free improv, a sprinkling of originals that are jagged polished little jewels of rhythmic jigsaws and fragmentary melody, some viscerally driving swing and bursts of rhapsodic lyricism. In Gress and Rainey he has perfect foils who anticipate, play off each other and shadow every move.
In the first set Paul Simon’s A train in the distance sucked the air out the room, as the piano chimed the affecting melody, floating on a pulsing, insistent sizzle from Rainey’s drums. Then they launched into Green’s own My Spy a jagged left hand riff doubled with Gress’s bass and stabbing chords and glittering fragments of melody from the right hand. If little clusters of notes and angular turns in the piano solo hinted at Monk, it was overt as they ripped into a tumbling, free-wheeling take on the master’s Work. This is a tour on the back of the album release, but they were stretching beyond that material. More Green originals, another clattering tumultuous deconstruction this time of McCartney’s Her Majesty and a burst of sunshine and joy with a lilting calypso like piece, Pim, that drew a fluid, singing solo from Gress on the bass. Rainey was a revelation throughout. Sometimes adding colour, at others rhythm and clatter that tugged the band in new directions, at others sitting on the simplest of driving pulses. The choice of materials may have been Barry Green’s, but this was a group conversation and performance. A delight.
And another delight for me was to visit the Bonington for the first time and dip into Jazz Steps’ programme. They are another bit of the live music and jazz network on which we depend and run of course by volunteers. Loud cheers.
It was a routine Friday night at the Vortex, and the music was routinely out of the ordinary. Barry Green has had a semi-regular slot there with a variety of guests and this time he was joined by jazz national treasure Stan Sulzmann. The tenor silenced the room with a few exploratory hoots and phrases to start the gig. Then, with a flurry, a slide and a slither, a sinuous melodic line hinted at I Didn’t Know What Time It Was and suddenly everyone was playing. Tim Giles on drums somehow played off not quite stated rhythmic feints from the piano and Steve Watts’ loping bass line created momentum with subtle nudges and pushes. It was magical stuff.
This may not be a regular band, but they know each other of old. Tim Giles’ debut recording at age of 14 with the Hungry Ants had Steve Watts on bass, Giles has been playing with Green since the pianist’s college days and Watts has been a bass player of choice for just about everyone since the days of Loose Tubes. The long acquaintance and pleasure in each other’s company was tangible from the off.
They continued with a nod to John Taylor playing first his tune Ambleside and then How Deep is the Ocean, played frequently by Taylor. Ambleside’s soaring, spiralling melody evoked lyrical solos all round, before Sulzmann really took off on the standard. Long, melodic ideas just swept us along over a racing pulse from the band, extended single notes stretching over the tune’s form, the intensity suddenly relieved by cascades of notes. Everyone responded. After a grooving arrangement of You’ll Never Get to Heaven, Green pulled out a fiery solo on Kenny Wheeler’s Old Time. Glittering runs were punctuated by fiercely percussive episodes, the interaction with Giles on drums electrifying.
It was smiles and whoops all round as the familiar sprang surprises and a top drawer quartet had some fun. Just an average Friday at the Vortex then.
Amidst a busy few weeks, mandatory infusions of live jazz have kept me going. Three episodes offered different delights. Two Greens (Barry and Dave) and Alan Barnes formed an impromptu trio on a Friday night at London’s Vortex Club. This was a balm to the soul gig. Pianist Barry and bass legend Dave are not blood relations, but they’ve had a close musical relationship over years, recording a delightful duo album of mainly Alex Wilder tunes a few years back (check here ). A ripple of a piano chord and an abstract flutter from Barnes, a perfectly placed harmonic or sonorous pedal note from the bass was all it took to launch some tunes as another lesser known gem from the standards book unfolded. The trio format gave them all plenty of space and freedom for playful interchange and fluent, emotional expression. A Friday night treat.
Dropping into Bristol’s Alma Tavern on a Sunday night for a set by Chirimoya had a different, no less enjoyable flavour. Singer and percussionist Tammy Payne has put together a band and repertoire that re-makes the most unlikely source material with a pulsing latin/ Brazilian vibe. Its great fun and beautifully balanced. What do you need for a storming latin groove? Well Ruth Hammond‘s left hand on the keys, Matt Jones on drums and a few well judged stabbed chords from Ruth’s right hand. Tammy’s vocals, a Bristol treasure since the eighties and Smith and Mighty, glide over the groove with Beyonce, Bronski Beat, Jimi Hendrix all offering up repertoire. They started with a taught grooving Round Midnight and Gary Aylesbrook‘s liquid, melodic lines on trumpet sketching out the familiar theme. Great fun.
I wrote about John Law’s New Congregation ahead of their BeBop Club gig and the event didn’t disappoint. Word was out and The Bear’s back room was packed, standing room only at the back. The musical territory was the same as the album even if more than half the tunes were not, there’s a continuing flow of new tunes from the leader’s pen. What stood out even more than on the album was the strength of the melodic hooks. Rythmically dense and complex the music may be, but the peer-less musicians, (Laurie Lowe on drums and Yuri Goloubev on bass are surely hard to top as rhythm section) negotiated it at will and played beautifully and freely. Sam Crockatt on tenor was outstanding, never overplaying, his developing phrases and hooks glowed and took flight, delivered with a rough edged warm tone. Another Friday night treat.
Pianist Barry Green has been haunting my September. After popping up on Alan Barnes’ quartet recording One For Moll as a sideman, his trio with two A-list American partners, saxophonist Chris Cheek and drummer Gerald Cleaver (yes, no bass), provided the gig of the month and a hot CD recommendation. Barry recorded an album last year at the legendary System Two studios in New York with the two Americans and they were touring, promoting the album in September. They touched down at the Hen and Chicken in the middle of the month and tore into a varied set, skipping through a sizzling take on Ornette Coleman’s ‘Happy House‘ after moody abstraction on Paul Motian’s ‘Owl of Cranston’ and the lyrical ebb and flow of Green’s own ‘Stubblerash’. After a grooving workout on the John Martyn tune ‘May You Never’, they thoroughly deconstructed ‘Off Minor’ before completing the evening with a heart stopping reading of ‘When I Grow to Old Dream’. The fleet footed switches and lightening interaction of the trio are all captured on the CD as well as the quirky swerves in repertoire. Green can sound like several different pianists, now impressionistic colour and pensive exploration, now driving Ornette-ish free bop, followed by a folky Jarretish tinge to his playing on the album’s closer Getting To Be A Habit With Me and unsentimental lyricism and and richness of harmony on many of his compositions. The live set and the album reveal a distinctive musical personality and Gerald Cleaver and Chris Cheek are peer-less collaborators. Cleaver enlivens, goads and colours the music with every twitch, flourish and pause. Chris Cheek’s sound weaves through the mix sometimes sweetly melodic at others spooling out long spiky lines. It’s an intoxicating brew. You can get the album here.
Babelfish, the quartet led by vocalist Brigitte Beraha and pianist Barry Green have released a little more quiet beauty laced with wry mischief into the world in the shape of their new album Chasing Rainbows. A set of mainly original tunes and songs from the two co-leaders are given life by the effortlessly meshed grooves conjured up by Chris Laurence on bass and Paul Clarvis on busying, rustling, bustling percussion laced through with now elegant, now acerbic lines from the piano. Brazil is never far away. Michelangelo Anonioni begins as a languid, almost bossa and then subtly changes gear into a pulsating samba-like groove as Green builds an exciting solo over a Laurence/ Clarvis magic carpet of accompaniment that sounds both like its blazing away with its intensity and hardly there with the less is more approach to playing. Beraha’s Sushi Hero is more bouncing, slightly warped latin overlaid with a typically spikey vocal line, all leaps and dives. Nuit Blanche is darker, retaining a Brazilian edge in its gentler pulse. There are folkier themes with Salley Gardens given a joyous bouncing lilt. Barry Green’s Confusion is an angular, interval hopping, boppish theme, sown through the album with individual ‘tryouts’ by each band member before a final performance to close the set. This is beautifully wrought music, full of invention from Green and Beraha’s soloing but always complementing each other and developing their artfully constructed, compellingly melodic themes. This is another gem of an album to follow up their 2012 debut. They are launching in London on Tuesday 21st at Pizza Express. Let’s hope they manage to spread the beauty around the country in the months ahead
Is Bobby Wellins a national treasure? I’m prepared to concede that in terms of name recognition amongst the wider population, he may fall a little short. But on grounds of longevity, sheer quality and capacity to inspire and move and audience he should undoubtedly be on a shortlist somewhere. As a listening experience this gig was challenging. By the second set the theatre goers had packed out the bar and threatened to overwhelm the music, the first set was better, but the sound was not great (lots of concrete, three storey high atrium). Enough cut through to give tantalising glimpses. Wellins was not straying into any uncharted waters, but his feel, expression and embellishments of simple classic melodies was so full it had Barry grinning and the hairs on the back my neck standing. They closed the first set with ‘It never entered my mind’ and I’d swear there was a hush in the busy bar. If gutsy tenor on classic repoirtoire delivered with the full weight of a long, distinguished and occasionally turbulent career is your bag – then go seek Bobby Wellins out.
I made it inside the club this week and what a delight. Ever conscious that what I hear and like won’t be to everyone’s taste, nevertheless you’d have to be pretty indifferent not to marvel a bit at this band. Barry has quietly been establishing himself as a pianist of choice for a host of British stars over the last few years. Tim Giles allegedly submitted the album he recorded, aged 14, with Iain Ballamy and Steve Watts for GCSE course work – that looks like a few years ago now though.
They wear this lightly however. They’re not a afraid to strip the sound right back and have just a simple line on the from the piano, or an insistent clatter from the drums and not much else. Recalling the gig now, I want to pair lots of descriptions that don’t quite fit together: quirky/ lyrical; rythmycally off-centre/ flowing; fragementary/ melodic. All of them seemed to be true but to not quite do the music justice. Most of the themes are originals from Barry Green. Sometimes there’ll be a racing, repetitive figure which is a bit wonky, or there’s a driving pulse but a really broken up melodic line over it. Sometimes the little clusters of notes make me think of Monk, other times it Ornette Coleman with that loose limbed swing holding it all together. Then there’s glorious fluent improvising from Barry or tenor player Mark Hanslip. Occasionally the whole band drops to a whisper, perhaps just piano and drums on a ballad. This is very assured, very jazzy (and I like!), contemporary playing – top drawer stuff.