If Alan Barnes is to be believed, and caution is surely advisable given the occasional scatalogical departures in his legendary repartee, he and Dave Newton have been playing much of their repertoire for nearly 40 years since they first met as students. As they ripped into Art Pepper’s Chili Pepper at a blistering tempo, no counting in just Barnes’ liquid flurry of arpeggios to set the tempo, Newton’s chords instantly catching every accent of the quintessentially be-bop theme, there was no doubting the near telepathic nature of the musical partnership. ‘He’s been taking care of the chords for most of my adult life’ quipped Barnes at one point in the evening, lauding Newton’s playing and it’s hard to overstate the pianist’s visceral driving energy, coupled with a protean fluency whether with locked hands embellishing chord sequences or fizzing runs over an implacably grooving left hand bass-line. The one man rhythm section frequently seemed to fire himself up as the momentum built behind another dynamic solo. It wasn’t all fire and brimstone. Alan Barnes, gags about playing the same stuff in a different octave aside, evoked different moods and voices switching between alto, baritone and clarinet as we were quietly shepherded through a masterclass in repertoire and styles stretching from 20s writers like Don Redman, Gee Baby I Love You getting a through Newton workover, through to Hard bop master Cedar Walton with a thoroughly gospelly account of I’ll Let You Know and lingering over Barnes’ beloved Strayhorn, the quivering, final note of Lotus Blossom from the Baritone a heart stopping moment. These two musicians have spent their professional lives absorbing and absorbed in the writing and language of swing, big bands and be-bop onwards and its become their own language of expression. There were laughs, joyfulness, pain and melancholy for sure. And a hugely entertaining evening greeted with roars of approval as they burned out on Cottontail at an implausible tempo.
A quick look back at January’s diary confirms a cracking month of listening and gig going. Aside from Anthony Braxton, and Iain Ballamy early on, I caught Tom Green‘s Septet at Burdalls Yard at the start of a lengthy national tour. A rousing start to the month and my account is on Jazzwise’s website. A couple of CDs confirmed what a service two still relatively young labels, Whirlwind and Edition, are performing for our jazz scene. Both labels were of course started by musicians (Mike Janisch and Dave Stapleton). On Whirlwind, The Gate is bass player Phil Donkin‘s debut release as a leader after an already stellar career as a sideman, (my review for London Jazz here). Edition have done it again in signing another formidable European player, this time distinctive Finnish trumpeter Veneri Pohjola. His album Bullhorn has been stuck on my playlist (review here).
And then an epic weekend starting with Head South‘s authentic Latin grooves fronted by UK trumpet meister Steve Waterman at the BeBop Club. Chino Martell Morgan‘s percussion blended with Buster Birch’s rocket fuelled drumming to stir anyone’s blood, all MD’d by keysman John Harriman locked tight with Alsofredo Pulido‘s bass for the night. The Impossible Gentlemen at Wiltshire Music Centre followed on Saturday. Oh, its good to see them back again. Jon Turney’s review nicely captures the thrill. They roar and raunch and sigh and swoon in equal measure. There’s a singing bittersweet voicing of chords from Mike Walker‘s guitar blending with Gwilym Simcock‘s piano that’s almost a signature sound: my ole heart flipped over as a new tune Hold Out For The Sun launched the gig with just such a cycling sequence. The local jazz scene were out in force to appreciate. The weekend was topped off by Andy Sheppard and Denny Illett’s Hotel Bristol on Sunday at the Hen & Chicken. I’ve nothing to add to this. I’m not sure I can stand the pace.
These days the world may know Andy Sheppard principally through a series of collaborations on ECM, but in Bristol whilst due respect is paid to the international profile, there’s the regular local collaborations to delight, invariably showing us a different side. He’s to be seen at a near residency at Fringe Jazz with a rotating cast list, with the organ trio The Pushy Doctors playing just about anything with verve, passion and wry humour and now the delicious prospect of this quartet, Hotel Bristol. The full line-up is Andy, guitarist and Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival man Denny Ilet, uniquely (surely) bass and trumpet Percy Pursglove and drummer Dylan Howe. There have been relatively few appearances but the word has spread and Sunday night’s gig saw the room above the Hen and Chicken packed and a big grin on Ian Storrer’s face as his audience counter needed three digits. And what a treat this band served up.
A bluesy theme, delivered by guitar and tenor in unison, every bent note and dragged beat locked together whilst bass and drums dug into the beat. Not too many notes, just an ‘in the bones’ feel. Delicious Ham and Eggs. Then an even quavered vibe with lilting guitar chords and a quintessential Andy Sheppard melody, joyous, breathy upper register hoots and interval leaps to make the heart leap. Walk in the Park. It wasn’t all relaxed. A blistering boppish head gave way to incendiary soloing and Pursglove swapped bass for for flugelhorn horn. One of the exciting things about this band is that Sheppard has been writing for them and the carefully crafted themes with Sheppard’s well honed instinct for energy ramping stops and changes of pace provided a platform for some sizzling improvising all round. The second set started with an Illett composition All in Good time, with a flowing groove and a line that sounded like a carefully dissected and stretched out Blue Note theme, maximum value extracted from each phrase. Another joyous, grooving melody followed with hint of the Caribbean and had tenor and Pursglove’s flugelhorn blending again over the patter of Howe’s drums. Sighs, cheers and whoops all round. Someone should record this band! Everyone should have a little taste of this.
Alison Rayner and Deidre Cartwright formed the London based club night/ artist collective/ promoter Blow the Fuse 25 years ago this year and the occasion seems to have prompted a burst of creative activity, not least this project under bass player Rayner’s own name with the CD August just released (can it really be her first under her name?). The tour landed at the Hen and Chicken on Sunday, after a Saturday outing in Brighton – some photos here. They brought a collection of grooves and foot – tapping stompers giving a glimpse of the musical passions of forty years of music making. There’s plenty of jazz in there but 70s funk is never far away, laced through with latin, afro-beats and a few hints at dub and reggae. They started the evening with no funk holds barred Hyperbubble and the band going full throttle. Long time partners Deidre Cartwright on guitar and Diane McClouglin on tenor were surfing the effortless groove whipped up by Rayner locked tight with Buster Birch on drums. It didn’t take long for mooods to shift . Elegy for Art had the hymn like quality its title suggests and behind the lovely tune the ears were snagged by pianist Steve Lodder‘s fluent lyricism. A familiar face in Bristol form a previous lengthy association with Andy Sheppard, Lodder was a constant creative spark, his soloing growing progressively more incendiary as the evening wore on. By the time we’d got to the the samba-ish Half a world away in the second set he was flying. There’d been another evocative diversion through the moody CD title track August the bass lending a strong melodic thread. It wasn’t long before the wick was turned up again however. This was an entertaining, engaging evening, showcasing Rayner’s varied writing and influences, but with a strong group sound and an instinct for a groove that’s hard to resist.
Although nearly a week ago now, Kit Downes’ visit to the Hen and Chicken still glows in the memory. I’d have paid the entrance fee just for a second set segue of Two Ones and Bley Days, two tunes from his quintet’s recent album Light from Old Stars . It began with a whining, scraping, pitch blending workout from Lucy Railton on cello, first banshee like and then an added drone evoking bagpipes. The gentle groove with a theme of interlocking figures and counter melodies that crept in gave way to the freer more urgent Bley Days, its repeated melodic fragments were distorted, slithering boppish lines with a hint of something more wild and country-ish twisting their tails, all delivered as tightly locked harmonised lines belying their apparently casual delivery. It set the scene for a dazzling piano work out, all tumbling phrases and rippling runs before a duet between James Allsopp on tenor and James Maddren on drums rattled the windows more than the storm sweeping in from the Atlantic . They started at sizzling, Maddren’s broken rhythmic phrases swirling round exploratory runs and arpeggios from Alsopp, moved up gears into racing swing and a Coltranesque barrage from the tenor before notching it up again drawing involuntary whoops from the sizeable, storm braving crowd. The playing was inspiring all round, but Downes’ and bass man Calum Gorlay’s writing was a winner too. Wide ranging tastes were reflected in differing moods that embraced a whisperingly quiet rendition of Swedish folk music inspired melodies and and a quietly intense, rocking, celebration of delta blues man Skip James. A fabulous, uplifting gig.
“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” . There’s a self-evident truth about this little saying (attribution is varied but see here for a bit of digging). Music is such an immediate experience. There’s no conscious processing or translation involved in experiencing it and your own response to it can be intensely physical as a result; hairs rise on the back of the neck, tears spring to the eyes. In a busy week since Julian Arguelles brought his Quartet to the Hen & Chicken I’ve been reflecting on this. Feelings an experience has evoked stay powerfully in the memory, and writing about that isn’t quite as paradoxical as dancing about architecture. A bit of the latter might be in order too, in trying to pin down why this saxophonist and composer’s music hits with such emotional force without being sentimental or melancholy.
First there’s that sound. The tone and phrasing is unmistakeable. A flurry of notes and a little keening swoop at the top of a phrase are enough to catch your breath and sometimes set of a few butterflies in the stomach. No-one sounds quite like it. Some of his compositions sound as if they are written around this with characteristic repeated phrases giving an urgency and anticipation to tunes. Phaedrus, one of my favourites, captures this and launched the gig as it did the last time I saw them at the Con Cellar Bar in the London Jazz Festival last year captured on video here.
Then there’s the content. Julian is a writer and a prolific one. He expresses himself through the structures and harmonies he creates for musicians as well as through the immediacy of performance. The first set drew on arrangements of Spanish folk music, intriguing structures conceived for a trio and underneath it plenty of rocky, swinging gospelly pulses and progressions to raise the excitement levels. ‘Piece for D’ was raucous with honking tenor, ‘A life long Moment a sumptuous ballad’. Time and again a shift of metre or an ascending bass line would set the adrenalin racing or prompt an emotional lurch of the stomach.
And then the band. The musicians, Kit Downes, Sam Lasserson and James Maddren are undoubtedly some of the finest on the scene at the moment and as a unit with Julian their interaction and response to the material is what created the magic. The second set, a suite of 8 or 9 tunes played without a break was a tour de force. The suite showcased the intricacies of the writing (‘fiendishly difficult’ may not have been a merely jokey description by Arguelles judging by the look on the band’s faces), but when a promised fugue finally emerged with unaccompanied piano starting it off, it turned out to have funky groove and produced some pyrothechnic soloing from pianist Downes to raise the hairs on the neck.
To describe the peerless improviser and composer leader, the phenonmenal band and the by turns rocky, swinging, flowing compositions is to name the elements that make this band special – a bit of dancing about the architecture. I’m remembering the emotions long after the gig: delight, joy , often a desire to dance and a thread somehow acknowledging of pain and struggle. Why those? Well that’s the the paradox we started with perhaps, but it’s my response to great, creative musicians.
There was something about the way Jim Hart took his jacket off that seemed to say ‘right, now we are really getting down to business’. The band launched into ‘Bird Brain’ and it was clear why the metaphoric rolling up of sleeves was necessary. Lightening fragments of boppish phrases were fired off at odd intervals, frequently doubled by the well prepared Hart and Tori Freestone on tenor cutting across stuttering rythmns from the locked bass and drums of Jaspar Hoiby and Dale Hamblett. It was adrenalin rush stuff and, as he did on several occasions during the evening, Jim Hart worked some magic that despite the frenetic action from the band , steadily built the intensity and excitement even further during his solo. There was much to admire about this gig. Ivo Neame’s writing is complex, multi layered and detailed. There’s plenty to grab the attention first time round and lots to return to on repeated listens (yup, we bought the CD), a wonky groove and ear tweaking melodic fragments are never far away but they appear and fade creating different moods. The playing of each of these fine musicians was uniformly dazzling. The standouts on this evening were for me the ensemble and some individual moments of brain melting brilliance. As the compositions ebbed and flowed, the band managed the trick of sounding like they were playing freely, casually throwing in improvised phrases here, barking staccato rhythms there; the fact that many of the phrase were doubled or harmonised signalled it was often anything but casual. This was a high wire act with everyone playing their part.
It wasn’t a completely even performance. Bird Brain in the first set really turned the heat up after “American Jesus’ and and the attractive ‘Moonbathing’ had prepared us for the range of textures in the sound. Ivo Neame seemed to really lift off in ‘Owl of Me’ in the second set, his solo one of those breathtaking moments; flurries of phrases and abstract chords overlapping until a strong melodic logic appeared like mist parting and dazzling runs and crescendos carried us along. Jim Hart supplied yet another in the closer ‘Yatra’ repeated figures bringing out the latin character and whirlwind riffs knocking the breath out of us. ‘He’s ***** brilliant’ someone whispered in my ear at the climax. Nicely put. What a great start to Ian Storrer’s season at the Hen and Chicken. It wasn’t just me. Jon Turney lapped it up too. There’s more to come with the quality looking equally high. Full details of the season here