Byron Wallen, St. James Wine Vaults, Thursday 26th January

byronwallenIt took just a couple of notes from Byron Wallen‘s trumpet to infuse the Wine Vault’s atmosphere with a crackle of excitement on Thursday night.  He led the band into Kenny Dorham’s Lotus Blossom, an easily swinging groove with a bluesey theme; a quintessential sixties Blue Note vibe.  The visitor  unfurled a blistering solo, gracefully shaped phrases following the arc of the harmony and little accelerations and flurries of notes building the excitement. By the time he’d finished, bass man and the Vaults’ impressario Wade Edwards was grinning like a cheshire cat. We all were.

This was Wallen’s second visit to share the stage with the house trio. The last  (here), several years ago now, still glows in my memory. Then as now, there was plenty of engaging chat and a reminder from DJ Tony Clark in his introduction of the weight and length of the trumpeter’s CV.  This time the theme was trumpet heroes and we got a slew of classics associated with various legends and music firmly rooted in classic jazz.  Orthinology  was for Fats Navarro, Sky Dive for Freddie Hubbard, Tom Cat for Lee Morgan and Budo for Miles.  In between a sprinkling of Wallen originals added another flavour to the mix, his artfully constructed pieces always having a twist or darker tone to them.The Little Giant, for Booker Little,  was a lilting waltz with bitter-sweet harmony and an angular rhythmic hook to nudge the band in different directions. It also occasioned the name drop of the evening as Wallen recounted hanging out with the legendary Charles Lloyd after a gig and asking him about Little, with whom Lloyd had been at school and apparently, according to the sax man, ‘showed him the blues’.  We got some jazz history as well as scintillating music.  Home Truth got an airing as it it did on  Wallen’s previous visit, a dark, brooding ballad with echoes of the music of Kenny Wheeler.

Every time the trumpet spoke, there was an easy fluency and energy that fired the house band up and brought new sounds out of them. As soon as Vyv Hope Scott launched into his piano solo on the opening Lotus Blossom he’d found a slight different more open sound compared to the familiar muscular swing of the trio’s warm up number You and the Night and the Music, the gear shift somehow cued by Wallen’s exploratory playing.  It’s a testament to the quality and flexibility of the house trio that they respond readily to the sound of their varied guests.   Deep into the second set Wallen called You Don’t Know What Love Is and brought the house down with a keening, emotional reading of the standard.

This was top drawer jazz from an A list name in British jazz.  Let’s hope he’s return is even quicker next time.





Byron Wallen, St. James Wine Vaults, Thursday 16th September

An expectant buzz greeted us as we settled onto our favoured bench at the back of the Wine Vaults on Thursday. Tonight’s first gig of the season, timings contrained by the schedule of London bound trains, was none other than Byron Wallen joining the Jazz House trio. Wallen’s CV threatened to overwhelm as Tony Clark did his usual witty introductions, but he did highlight the diverse scope of our guest’s interests from classic jazz through various world and african idioms, so it was a hard to know what to expect.

The opener, Monk’s ‘I mean you’ set the direction pretty clearly. We got a tour of Byron Wallen’s jazz roots and inspirations, with influences and (recorded) mentors name checked – Woody Shaw, Clifford Brown – and compositions and choice of standards giving a dramatic illustration of his versatility from the modal like, post bop burner (For Wood), deeply jazzy contemporary composition (Merry go round) and tender, beautifully constructed ballad (Home Truth). In between were standards some re-imagined ( Bye Bye Blackbird as New Orleans shuffle) some played in familiar style. Wallen’s solos, although generally quite brief, were lovely fluent, balanced improvisations that always left us wanting more (even when he fluffed a few of the more frenetic themes a bit … Donna Lee and his own For Wood – it was a cold night out!).  And once again, the house band rose to the occasion. Presented with unfamiliar music on the night each had their moments in the spotlight; Wade on ‘merry go round’ linked solos together with his own, Trevor had a few features, especially on a couple of more ‘worldy’ grooves and Vyv seemed on fire, really pulling one out on Byron’s ballad Home Truth, delighting the composer as well as the audience.  So this was a great start to the season, with a gig that simmered nicely and then came to the boil  with a rousing encore of Don’t stop the Carnival.