Lighthouse at The Edge Arts Centre, Much Wenlock, Shropshire, 08/09/2012.
Thursday, September 13, 2012
Reviewed by: Ian Mann
Photography: Tim Garland photographed at Brecon Jazz Festival 2012 by Tim Dickeson.
An excellent, superbly constructed performance with the group exhibiting an admirable control of dynamics. The playing varied between the fierily exuberant to the downright beautiful.
Lighthouse, The Edge Arts Centre, Much Wenlock, Shropshire, 08/09/2012.
Following festival triumphs at Cheltenham and Brecon Lighthouse remain one of the hottest properties in British jazz. The trio of Tim Garland (reeds), Gwilym Simcock (piano) and Asaf Sirkis (drums/percussion) recently signed to the prestigious Munich based label ACT and their eponymous début for the label is not only their finest album to date but also the first to gain international distribution. It deserves to establish this most accomplished of groups on the world stage.
Lighthouse has its origins in Tim Garland’s 2005 solo project “If The Sea Replied” which grew out of a series of solo saxophone and bass clarinet improvisations recorded in Whitley Bay Lighthouse that utilised the building’s unique acoustic properties. Garland later formed a band to record this music and to take it on the road and recruited Simcock and Sirkis for the project. Such was the rapport that developed between the three that the Lighthouse Trio became a semi permanent entity, still under the leadership of Garland, and a second album, the double set “Libra” was released in January 2009. In December 2008 the trio visited The Edge and performed a brilliant set comprised largely of the “Libra” material, a combination of Garland originals plus a smattering of jazz standards by Bill Evans, Kenny Wheeler and Charles Mingus.
Fast forward to 2012 and the trio has changed substantially, adopting the single word band name Lighthouse as a signifier that this is now a wholly democratic unit with Simcock playing a fuller role in the writing process and now contributing roughly half of the trio’s current material. The trio has also abandoned its “chamber jazz” trappings to embrace a fuller, more extrovert sound and approach, this the result in part of the exponential growth of Sirkis’ kit. His customised set up includes a variety of frame drums, cymbals, udu, hang drum as well as items from the conventional drum kit. He certainly had more percussive equipment than on his previous visit and this increasingly large battery of instruments comes with a corresponding increase in the group’s rhythmic drive. These days their live shows are a very exciting prospect indeed with the trio members exhibiting dazzling musical skill allied to a refreshing joie de vivre. They take a very real and obvious delight in their music making.
The trio began the evening with Garland’s flamenco flavoured Bajo Del Sol” from the “Libra” album, opening with the sound of the composer’s unaccompanied bass clarinet with Garland eventually picking out the tune’s distinctive driving riff. Simcock’s subsequent piano solo was leaping and exuberant with Garland adding auxiliary percussion before switching to soprano sax for a scorching solo. Sirkis enjoyed an extended percussion feature before the piece came full circle to end with Garland back on bass clarinet. A thrilling start.
From the new ACT album “Lighthouse” came Garland’s descriptive and lyrical “Wind On The Water”, a musical depiction of a midnight stroll along a Northumbrian beach featuring the composer’s soprano sax and Simcock’s limpidly flowing piano.
Garland and Simcock shared the announcing duties for the evening with each composer introducing their own tunes. The pianist’s “King Barolo” was a celebration of double bassist and composer Malcolm Creese’s generosity of spirit and love of fine wines. Creese is the leader of the trio Acoustic Triangle with whom Simcock and Garland also perform and a group that made a triumphant visit to The Edge in 2011. The tune makes use of the distinctive singing qualities Sirkis brings to the hang drum, his use of pentatonic scales shaping the adventurous harmonies of the piece. Sirkis plays the instrument with his bare hands rather than using soft head mallets, a technique deployed by the members of Portico Quartet. The piece opened with an extended hang and percussion feature from Sirkis, innately musical and bringing an almost Japanese feel to the piece. Simcock joined him in duet as they moved into the main body of the tune with Garland later joining in on rootsy tenor, his solo accompanied by the sound of Sirkis’ udu (or clay pot) as the mood became increasingly celebratory. This was invigorating, technically dazzling stuff.
Garland’s “One Morning”, part celebration of, part lament for, a dead friend was introduced by Sirkis on the udu and also featured the composer’s warm, breathy tenor sax.
The first half closed with Simcock’s “Barber Blues” which the composer described as a “sixteen bar blues in the style of Samuel Barber”. Barber (1910-81) is best known for his 1936 work “Adagio For Strings” but was a prolific composer with an interest in jazz forms. Simcock’s piece was something of a musical exercise with extended solo piano passages for both the left and right hands only but there was nothing dry or academic about the trio’s playing with Sirkis’ pattering percussion and Garland’s woody, grainy but astonishingly agile bass clarinet work adding an infectious quality to the music. Simcock’s composition included some stunning set pieces including the solo piano passages referenced earlier, an inspired dialogue between Simcock and Sirkis, and finally a brilliant percussion feature with Sirkis pummelling the various items of his percussive arsenal above Simcock’s vigorous left hand ostinati. This was compelling but ultimately thrilling music that closed the first set with a rush of adrenaline.
Simcock began the second set where he had left off with another exploration of apparently dry musical concepts that again proved to be both accessible and stirring. Simcock’s announcement of the tune bandied around words like “modal”, “contrapuntal” and “harmonic” but with Garland moving between bass clarinet and soprano sax and with Simcock delivering some of his most intensely rhythmic piano playing the piece again absorbed and enthralled in equal measure. Simcock named it “Empires” due to the “processional” feel generated by the tightly knit music.
“We Remember”, another new Simcock tune was a tender lament written in response to the sad news of the recent death of jazz pianist Pete Saberton who had tutored Simcock at the Royal Academy of Music. The piece was introduced by a beautiful duet between Simcock at the piano and Garland on soprano saxophone with both men at their most lyrical. Garland’s soprano tone was almost flute like and the air of fragile beauty was later enhanced by the sensitivity of Sirkis’ drumming, particularly his inspired cymbal choices.
From the ACT album Garland’s “Above The Sun” was written as a sister piece to the earlier “Bajo Del Sol” and again embraced the “twisted melodies” and rhythms of flamenco music with Garland beginning on bass clarinet before switching horns to deliver an impassioned soprano sax solo. Simcock’s piano solo explored the rhythmic possibilities presented by flamenco. As the trio pointed out with no bass player in the ranks all three take turns to perform the bass function on their respective instruments. The fiery “Above The Sun” proved to be as dazzling and invigorating as its companion piece.
The jointly composed “Weathergirls” was great fun, described by the band as “breezy and bright with occasional stormy patches”. Sirkis’ use of the hang helped to establish a playful mood and there were suitably lively, occasionally squally solos from Garland on tenor, Simcock on piano and a barnstorming final percussion feature.
Simcock’s “Tawel Nawr” (Welsh for “Quiet Now”) introduced an air of calm to the proceedings. Garland blew tenor phrases into the open lid of the grand piano to produce extraordinary echoes and resonances. I’ve seen this technique used before but never as dramatically and effectively as this. The singing quality of the reverb was a timely reminder of the origins of the trio inside that lighthouse in Whitley Bay. The tune itself developed into a beautiful, lyrical ballad with an almost hymnal quality. Simcock has made no secret of his admiration for the work of American guitarist Pat Metheny and the writing here embodied something of Metheny’s highly developed melodic sense. Simcock may be capable of producing highly complex music but he is not afraid of embracing simplicity. This was a lovely piece with understated solos from Garland on tenor and Simcock at the piano with suitably sympathetic accompaniment from Sirkis.
By way of contrast Simcock’s “Space Junk” saw the pianist metaphorically “plugging in” and joining the dance culture of Ibiza. Simcock did some work on the island with DJ’s Carl Cox and Yousef and this lively tune commemorates this experience with Simcock’s dampened piano strings and Sirkis’ percussion simulating the beats of dance music and electronica. With Garland soloing strongly on tenor this was funky, passionate music that was rapturously received by The Edge audience. Wenlock crowds are never less than appreciative but here the applause was augmented by whoops and hollers of approval, not quite such regular occurrences here in rural Shropshire.
The high energy “Space Junk” proved to be the end of the performance but the trio were quickly encouraged back to the stage to quieten things down again with Garland’s arrangement of the Bill Evens/Miles Davis classic “Blue In Green” which the trio tackled on the “Libra” album. Although not a regular part of the trio’s current repertoire this proved to be an inspired and popular choice representing a link to the trio’s previous appearance at this venue. Garland moved between soprano and bass clarinet, Simcock filled the Bill Evans role to perfection and Sirkis use of cymbals was once again exquisite.
This had been an excellent, superbly constructed performance with the group exhibiting an admirable control of dynamics. The playing varied between the fierily exuberant to the downright beautiful. Many of the ideas were complex yet the music was always accessible with the warm personalities of the trio adding to the overall enjoyment. Shrewsbury based saxophonist Casey Greene who was in the audience spoke of his admiration for the group and noted that the majority of the time the trio members were not reading music. He marvelled at the sheer amount of musical information they must have crammed into their heads, especially given the fact that all three have a number of simultaneous other projects on the go. Casey’s words certainly endorsed Chick Corea’s statement about Simcock being “a creative genius” and of course the great American pianist has worked regularly with Garland too.
Simcock is a great friend of The Edge and returns on the 2nd December with the Anglo American supergroup The Impossible Gentlemen alongside guitarist Mike Walker, electric bass specialist Steve Swallow and drummer Adam Nussbaum. He also recommended that audience members check out the solo piano performance to be given by American pianist Fred Hersch on 7th October. Simcock is clearly a great admirer of Hersch’s pianistic abilities. In the meantime Simcock is the patron of the appeal to raise funds for The Edge to purchase its own grand piano, an instrument that will be ultimately be utilised for the benefit of the entire community.
JAZZ MANN FEATURES
The sun shines on the final day of an excellent festival.
Ian Mann soaks up the vibes at Cheltenham Jazz Festival.