A chill in the air, the scent of rain, about right for August then. Ian Storrer had contrived to make the upper room at the Hen and Chicken feel like a velvet clad cave, complete with a blinking string of lights in the tunnel between stairs and seats. It was an appealing Sunday evening setting for the trio comprising the never predictable, always compelling Sam Crockatt on saxophones, quietly, arrestingly, propulsive and melodic Riaan Vosloo on bass and the restlessly inventive Dave Smith on drums. They served up two tasty sets, taking a winding path through folk songs, a handful of originals and diverse mixture of tunes from the pens of Dave Holland, Gil Evans via Wayne Shorter, David/ Hoffman/ Livingston via Disney and Ornette Coleman.
The snaking theme of Dave Holland’s Four Winds kicked things off followed by a moody, introspective take on the folk song Fair Phoebe and the Dark Eyed Sailor, Crockatt evoking a ghostly ships horn to set the scene. All The Things You Are’s famous theme was sketched and turned inside out, before gaining a hurtling momentum. Grandfather Clock had a delightful drum introduction replete with ‘tick-tock’s’, setting up a lilting groove. Crockatt’s delivery evoked a whiff of Sonny Rollins as dancing riffs and fluid runs ramped the energy up. Crockatt’s own Stroll on the Knoll closed the set with with a snappy energy.
The second set continue in the same eclectic vein, but no matter what the material, there was a musical and melodic understanding that seemed to bind the three together. Drum solos had a melodic shape to them, sax solos a rhythmic energy and distilled economy of phrase, Vosloo was complementing and commenting as much as anchoring.
All of these three are sought over sidemen and leaders in their own right. The trio is a meeting of equal. Their choice of material, fearless playing and instinctive, bred-through- long-familiarity understanding, make them a winning combination.
Once I had a Secret Love. Is it too whimsical to connect the title of a Jake McMurchie favourite to his now 30 year association with the sax? The thought popped into my head as he unfurled, unaccompanied, a viscerally grooving take on the Doris Day theme, artful phrasing, space and a stabbing little phrase upping the momentum as the rest of the quartet joined in. We didn’t really need any reminding of what a musical and inventive player Jake is, the solo that followed rammed it home nevertheless.
The love affair with the sax can’t have stayed secret for long once he started gigging and there were plenty of people who knew how good he was by the time Get The Blessing won the BBC awards in 2008 and the late Jack Massarik was asking ‘where’s he been?’ Sunday night’s gig had the feel of a reflective retrospective. The repertoire dipped into favourites from the past. Monk’s I Mean You, and the standard Paper Moon each got an outing. There were different vibes; a bit of the GTB back catalogue got an airing, Nick Drake’s Know was a mesmerizing opener, a vintage McMurchie tune Oranges and Melons was all delicate lyricism and plaintive soprano swoops following by a more bristling, darker brand new one, as yet untitled.
The recently minted quartet gave the music the energy and emotional charge it warranted. Riaan Vosloo on bass was a taut, propulsive force throughout, on occasion looping a riff until the intensity reached fever pitch. Matt Brown behind the kit never overpowered the sound but lit fires under the band throughout the gig, sometimes stoking the momentum relentlessly, at others laying down a trance like pulse or when the occasion demanded, swinging like mad. Dan Waldman’s guitar provided the perfect harmonic and melodic foil to the sax, finding by turns singing lines and then angular and divergent paths through the tunes.
If the retrospective drew on plenty of back catalogue, it sounded fresh and dynamic in the hands of this band. Lets hope there is plenty more to come from them.
If blog posts have been a little sporadic over the last couple of months, listening and gig attendance has not. A quick look back over the shoulder is in order. I fancy we recall impressions and how it felt to be present rather than details when it comes to recalling live gigs at distance. A couple stand out in sharp relief. Pianist Bruce Barth touched down at the Hen and Chicken early in March, a world class performer (a CV that includeds Mingus Big Band AND Tony Bennett!) , he’d not been seen in Bristol for 18 years he said. It was an evening of blistering straight-ahead trio jazz. The tingle of excitement is still there. We did wonder if the newly donated grand piano was going to last the evening given the energy Barth devoted to testing it out.
March also saw the 2017 edition of Bristol’s Jazz and Blues Festival. Jon Turney’s summary for London Jazz captures the thrill and buzz. I am still thrilled by Jasper Hoiby’s Fellow Creatures. The original themes and grooves are all engaging and absorbing, the afterglow that has remained is the unbridled gust of energy and joie de vivre with which the band played. Singling out the dual horns of Laura Jurd’s trumpet and Mark Lockheart’s sax seems a little invidious given the importance of the collective vibe, but their interplay and individual soloing lifted the roof a inch or two more off its moorings. To play with such freedom and togetherness on complex material marks this band out as something special. They went on to record a live album at the end of the tour of which this gig was a part. Put me down for a copy!
The Cloudmakers touched down at the Hen and Chicken on Sunday bringing a healthy crowd out to experience the dense thickets of rhythm, mazy themes and explosive playing of the expanded trio. Vibes man and composer Jim Hart, drummer Dave Smith and getting to be a Hen and Chicken regular, Michael Janisch on bass are joined by Hannes Riepler on guitar and Antonin-Tri Hoang on alto and clarinet for their pretty extensive current tour.
This was music with a lot going on. Two in one began to seem like a theme. A piece combining elements of All the Things You Are and Ornithology had been preceded by Travelling Pulse Somewhere North of Ghana, built around a complex rythmn but referencing colder Nordic climes. The second set started with The Road for Ed a demented, wonky samba-like groove overlayed with a slow moving free-boppish theme. It spiralled off into urgent freeblowing with Hoang and then flipped back to the hurtling groove behind a blistering vibes workout.
Watching Janisch look first at Smith, then Hart with a quiet smile as rockets of rythmn seem to pass between them summed something about the gig up. They were individually and in combination electrifying, Hart sublimely fluid and inventive with Smith seeming to catch every accent and kick almost before it happened.
Hoang was a revelation. From unearthly squawks, honks and atmospheric squeals to percussive and dramatic blowing, Harts writing gave him plenty of action. Riepler was adding ghostly textures and atmosphere as often as digging in. It wasn’t all tumult. Golden‘s simple motif, emerging from a meditative Riepler introduction swelled to an anthemic climax. The gig closed with Back Home, full of yearning and shimmering atmosphere.
The quintet are individually top drawer players. Hart’s writing and their empathy meshes them into a formidable unit.
Watching Andy Sheppard with Hotel Bristol at a valedictory gig just before Christmas in the Hen and Chicken’s upstairs room was the full Sheppard experience. First there was the band, another of his (almost too many to count) collaborations. This one has been maturing over a couple of years, Denny Ilet providing the a bluesey not quite rocky edge on guitar; the peer-less Percy Pursglove on bass with dash of top class trumpet thrown in and Mark Whitlam blossoming on drums. Then there’s the music. A few raunchier (Illet?) compositions like All in Good Time and a burst of rock on Smut gave a platform for the tenor to burn. Laced through the set were the unmistakable melodic inflections and affecting themes and ample space for the band to invent and play. They were cooking.
And why valedictory? Well after more than 30 years as a part of Bristol’s jazz scene Andy’s leaving town, relocating to Portugal. Never mind the fact that in that time he’s built a global reputation, he’s still an active part of the local scene. The room was even more packed than usual to mark the occasion. Its also made me a bit reflective. The Sheppard sound, so unmistakeable, first piqued my interest and started me on a journey into jazz.
Not quite thirty years ago I was a music lover, living in Bristol, but not to my knowledge at the time listening to anything that could be called jazz. Someone, a friend I think, played me a record (and it was vinyl) by a great Bristol based band and the fluting soprano intro, world music inflected groove and barnstorming trombone solo on Java Jive (first track on the first Sheppard album), made me want to listen again. One thing led to another. Diving in, listening on the live jazz scene in Bristol, ransacking fairly randomly the record library (yes.. vinyl) and new vistas opened up including having some jazz piano lessons with Dave Buxton who I only later realised was the pianist on that first album
Andy got a fine send off on that evening and managed to fit in another appearance at The Fringe in January, where there’s been an irregular but frequent residency over the last few years. And he’ll be back. The Pushy Doctors are scheduled at The Hen and Chicken later in the year and the mouth watering prospect of a live score performed to Metropolis with a ten-piece band including Eivind Aarset and Michel Rabbia at Bristol’s Jazz and Blues Festival in March. It’s ‘au revoir’, then but a moment to pause and reflect. Drawing breath and reflecting seems an essential part of the Sheppard music. Trio Librero stilling the cavernous and packed Colston Hall with the simplest of melodies remains an enduring memory and stopping time at magical performance at the Bath Festival is another to put alongside the raucous joie de vivre of The Pushy Doctors and swagger of Hotel Bristol.
The London Jazz Festival is brain-melting in the volume and variety of music and experiences on offer over a ten day period in November. I could only make one gig, but what a night it was, duly reviewed for London Jazz here. That piece hopefully captures some of the magic of being there. The second set with a full orchestra and sublime arrangements by the late Steve Gray overwhelmed the senses. Since the gig I have also been reflecting on how extraordinary the trio is. With just clarinets, piano and voice they cover ground from Madonna, Tom Waits and exultant and dramatic originals. Check out the CDs on ECM; a unique sound, distilled and expansive all at once. I’ve also been giggling ever since about over hearing the man on the ticket desk explaining to someone that Manfred Eicher (ECM boss) was not now coming. I did ask if I could use the tickets he was going to have – ‘I sat in Manfred Eicher’s seat’ was going to sound good over an expresso in a suitably hip cafe – but I was told ‘your seats are better than his’!
There’s an unexpected link between that gig and last Sunday’s visit to the Hen and Chicken by Dominic Howles’ Quintet. Norma’s gig featured the arrangements of composer, arranger, pianist Steve Gray many of which were penned with Norma in mind. Gray died in 2008 and, it turns out was Dominic’s father-in-law. The Quintet that Howles brought to the Hen and Chicken had plenty of fire-power. With the Fishwick brothers on drums and trumpet, Dave O’Higgins on tenor and Nick Tomalin on piano, they ripped into Howles’ originals and arrangements. The repertoire was firmly in swinging, Blue Note and sixties driving jazz territory, given a thrilling edge by the contemporary sensibilities and sound of the fluent band. The Police’s Message in a Bottle got a jazz working over, odd time-signatures and angular harmony giving it a darker edge, the shuffling groover Ease Up got everyone going. Time after time O’Higgins sculpted graceful lines over dense, twisting harmony, with bursts and flurries of notes wriggling through, building the excitement. The temperature went up every time he stepped forward. There was no doubting where Howles’ heart lies with nods at Benny Golson, a tribute to Coltrane firmly in Moments Notice/ Giant Steps territory over a rolling groove and a borrowed Ray Brown arrangement of Remember. Meet me at the Deli, another bluesey shuffle and the newly formed band, easing into the arrangements were well and truly cooking. They are out and about over the next few months with an album in production, so look out for more
Andrew Bain may sound Scottish (he is) and may be listed as a teacher at Birmingham Conservatoire (he does teach there), but really, we discovered last night, he’s part of a very hot New York crew. Hen & Chicken punters got to hear them at the end of a 14 date run and it showed in the ease and freedom with which they explored Bain’s suite of seven original pieces.
Jon Irabagon (twice Downbeat critics poll winner) led the charge on Accompaniment, a loose rubato theme swept along by tumbling percussion from Bain, the droning bass of Whirlwind Records boss Michael Janisch and splashy piano from Jack DeJohnette and Cassandra Wilson sideman (amongst many others), George Colligan. The tumult built with Irabagon alternately keening and squalling then spinning out blizzards of lightning quick runs before handing the baton to Colligan. Practice showed us how rooted in rhythm they all were with a time shifting groove and preposterous mazy unison rendition of the theme by sax and piano. Colligan let rip with the first of several electrifying work-outs ,Bain and Janish exuberantly following every step, the drums instinctively connecting with accents and bass propelling the headlong frenzy. Responsibility alternated between a shuffling groove and driving swing for a blues, Janisch digging in to raise the temperature with his solo. Hope had a chiming repeated note to set the mood and Irabagon’s solo soared and swooped over a skirling rythmn. Hope got a little raucous too as there seemed to no holding the momentum of this band back.
Bain had created the outlines of the pieces for this band to work with, it was the four-way interaction that brought it all bursting to life. They moved in an out of free-er sections, grooved hard and burned on frequent bursts of racing swing, frequently switching between them with no apparent cues. This was a fabulous, exhilarating ride and the last section, Trust an appropriately rousing, hymn-like, emotional finale.