Julian Siegel Quartet, The Edge Arts Centre, Much Wenlock, Shropshire, 26/05/2012.
Monday, May 28, 2012
Reviewed by: Ian Mann
A musical roller coaster ride from the "Urban Theme Park.".
Julian Siegel Quartet, The Edge Arts Centre, Much Wenlock, Shropshire, 26/05/2012.
On the night of the Eurovision Song Contest (or Brewer’s Benefit Night as I’ve always thought of it, let’s face it, is there anything else on telly more guaranteed to drive you out to the pub?) sixty or so discerning souls found their way to The Edge to hear some proper music.
Multi reeds player and composer Julian Siegel was making a welcome first visit to The Edge in the company of his regular quartet featuring Liam Noble (piano and synthesiser), Oli Hayhurst (double bass) and Gene Calderazzo at the drums. Hayhurst and Calderazzo have both visited the venue before as members of pianist Zoe Rahman’s trio and quartet.
Tonight’s quartet appear on Siegel’s latest CD “Urban Theme Park” (Basho Records, 2011), one of the most acclaimed British jazz releases of recent years. A strikingly versatile musician both in terms of both instruments played (tenor & soprano sax, clarinet and bass clarinet) and genres covered (from songbook standards to jazz rock) Siegel remains criminally underrated. For my money he’s one of this country’s finest musicians, a consummate live performer and one whose recorded output is consistently interesting whether with Partisans the fiery jazz rock quartet he leads with guitarist Phil Robson (and which also includes Calderazzo) or leading his own groups. These include the current quartet and an Anglo American trio featuring bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Joey Baron, originally convened for Cheltenham Jazz Festival but which later recorded an excellent live double album for Basho Records at London’s Vortex Jazz Club.
“Urban Theme Park” represented Siegel’s first quartet recording since 2002’s “Close Up” featuring Noble, bassist Jeremy Brown and drummer Gary Husband. Not surprisingly the new album is brimming over with ideas and is chock full of ambitious ideas and superlative playing (“Urban Theme Park” is reviewed elsewhere on this site). In a live context these ideas are developed even further and there’s a sense of adventurousness in the quartet’s playing that becomes palpable. This was apparent at a show I saw them perform at Dempsey’s in Cardiff in October 2011 (with Dave Whitford deputising for Oli Hayhurst) but was even more pronounced tonight. With Hayhurst back in the group there was an even greater sense of this music having been thoroughly “played in” and of the musicians being prepared to take risks with the material.
Not surprisingly much of tonight’s set was drawn from “Urban Theme Park” with Siegel making a spectacular entrance, cradling his horns in the manner of Rahsaan Roland Kirk. However he sticks to playing one at a time and commenced on clarinet, gently musing above Calderazzo’s floating rhythms and Noble’s interior piano scrapings. Hayhurst’s bass riff formed the bridge into a more forceful second section that saw Siegel pick up his tenor to solo at length above Noble’s increasingly chunky piano chording and Calderazzo’s driving rhythms. Noble eventually took over the lead, his dazzling right hand runs augmented by his strong left hand rhythms. He is a pianist who has developed a unique style and whose left hand assumes an almost equal primacy to his right. Noble’s rhythmic sensibilities allied to those of Hayhurst and Calderazzo gave Siegel a particularly fertile backdrop to solo against and these interlocking rhythmic patterns were a consistently interesting feature across two fine sets.
Siegel isn’t much of a one for tune announcements, he prefers to let his various horns do the talking but I’d hazard that this opening sequence was a segue of “Incantation” from the Cohen/Baron live album followed by the cerebrally funky “Six Four”, the opening track from “Urban Theme Park”.
No such surmising about the next item which Siegel announced as “Heart Song” from the latest album and which commenced with a stunning duet between Siegel on clarinet and Noble at the piano. Hayhurst’s solo bass bridge took the tune into the next stage with subsequent solos coming from Noble, Siegel,still on clarinet, and Hayhurst. This lovely piece ended as it began with a dialogue between clarinet and piano.
Siegel dedicated “One for J.T.” to Manchester born pianist John Taylor, one of the all time British jazz greats. Taylor turns 70 this year and I recently saw him perform a commission to mark the occasion at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, an excellent performance with a hand picked band including his sons Leo and Alex. Given these circumstances Siegel’s tribute was suitably celebratory, a joyous piece that defied the complexities of its 12/8 groove to deliver something infectious and thrilling. Siegel delivered a scintillating solo on tenor before the band dropped out leaving Noble space to deliver a brilliant passage of solo piano. This may have been a homage to Taylor yet Noble’s chunky, percussive style sounded utterly different. This may have been a tip of the hat but it was no pastiche.
Noble switched to the electric keyboard for the spacey and atmospheric “Interlude”, sometimes playing synthesiser and piano simultaneously in “prog rock” fashion. Noble’s increasingly alien electronic soundscapes were augmented by Hayhurst’s grainy arco bass and Calderazzo’s mallet rumbles with Siegel on long lined bass clarinet. Eventually Siegel picked out a typically memorable hook and used it as the basis for his subsequent solo. He’s an extremely fluent improviser on the instrument and has increasingly incorporated it into his work.
A passage of solo drums formed the bridge into a joyous but powerful version of veteran pianist Cedar Walton’s “Fantasy in D”, the only outside composition on the album. Siegel’s tenor solo was hard hitting but astonishingly fluent and set the tone for an equally effervescent solo from Noble and a series of volcanic drum breaks from the dynamic Calderazzo. This was a storming way to finish an excellent first half and The Edge audience were suitably appreciative.
Looking back this appears to be exactly the same first set they played in Cardiff (I’ve tried not to write exactly the same review) but with writing and playing of this calibre this hardly seemed to matter. This was great stuff.
The second set was rather similar to Cardiff too with the quartet kicking things off with the exuberant West African flavoured “Keys To The City” with Siegel sketching a tenor sax melody above crisp drums and Noble’s distinctive piano chording before embarking on a monster tenor solo.
Siegel was clearly not in a mood to hang about and the applause for “Keys To The City” was truncated as the quartet launched straight into the three part “Game Of Cards”, arguably the focal point of the “Urban Theme Park” album. Siegel has spoken of his admiration for Joey Baron as both as a musician and a magician; as well as being a phenomenal contemporary jazz drummer Baron is an amateur magician with a strong line in card tricks, possibly the inspiration behind Siegel’s choice of title. The theme and structure of Siegel’s piece is derived from Stravinsky’s ballet “Jeu des Cartes”. The three movements, or “Deals” as Siegel calls them, are interlinked and begin with “Dead End” featuring Siegel on soprano sax. As so often with Siegel’s writing the music built from Hayhurst’s bass riff with Siegel’s subsequent mercurial soprano solo unfolding above the interlocking rhythms of his three companions. At one point Noble introduced a fresh element to the proceedings, a reggae groove I’d never the heard the group incorporate before. This seemed to propel them to new levels of inspiration through the other two “Deals” (“Get Lucky and “Fast Game”) as Siegel’s soprano continued to bite in a series of tight, riffy exchanges with pianist Noble. Hayhurst and Calderazzo also featured strongly with prolonged features on the second movement before Noble took flight on the third his highly rhythmic soloing locking in with the vigorous rhythms of Hayhurst and Calderazzo as Siegel stood back and admired the work of his colleagues before returning, still toting his soprano for the big finish. Breathtaking stuff, a musical roller coaster ride from the Urban Theme Park.
“Lifeline” (I think) offered some respite as Noble returned to the synthesiser for an impressionistic duet with Siegel on bass clarinet. However the piece seemed to depart from the album version as Hayhurst picked out yet another bass motif before locking in with Calderazzo to produce a propulsive swing that fuelled solos from Siegel on bass clarinet and Noble at the piano. Spontaneous invention perhaps? Or another of Julian’s much loved segues.
It was a neat touch to conclude the second set by going back to the “Close Up” album for the boppish “Room 518” with Siegel imperious on tenor, conjuring up a tough vocalised tone as the group temporarily shifted into saxophone trio mode for a powerful yet typically fluent Siegel solo, the saxophonist also emitting volleys of notes in response to Calderazzo’s sparky drum breaks. The pace subsided briefly as Noble began his solo before quickening again through a final bass feature from the excellent Hayhurst and a final flourish from Siegel on the tenor.
A rousing audience response saw the quartet return for a much deserved encore with Siegel initially reaching for his bass clarinet before deciding to opt for tenor. With Noble again reaching into the body of the instrument to pluck the strings this was another freely structured, impressionistic piece with snatches of tenor sax melody cushioned by arco bass and mallet rumbles. It let the audience down gently with some moments of genuine beauty.
As I mentioned earlier Siegel does seem to be an under appreciated British jazz treasure. Perhaps it’s his self effacing manner or maybe his sheer versatility that makes him difficult to pigeon-hole. Even the timing of Partisans seemed to be wrong, the magnificent “Sourpuss” (Babel Records, 2000) album kick starting the punk jazz movement that spawned Acoustic Ladyland, Polar Bear, Led Bib, trioVD, Neil Cowley, Get The Blessing etc. To my mind Julian and the guys have never got the credit they deserved for blazing the trail.
All this is a roundabout way of saying that it’s a pity there weren’t a few more people there tonight. Good weather plus a Tony Levin memorial event in Birmingham featuring Keith and Julie Tippetts may have conspired to reduce the numbers. Nevertheless the concert was a musical triumph and Julian declared himself delighted with the venue.
Speaking to me after the gig he also enthused about the concert the night before at The Verdict at Brighton, also giving lavish praise to that new venue. Noble and Calderazzo were unable to appear and their places were taken by pianist Kit Downes and drummer James Maddren. Siegel pronounced himself delighted with the way these two young men really got inside this complex music and “absolutely smashed it”.
With experienced musicians like Siegel at their peak of their creative powers and with young stars like Downes and Maddren coming through the future of British jazz looks bright indeed.
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