Live at the Pizza Express
Tuesday, September 11, 2012
Reviewed by: Ian Mann
The UK based trio led by vibraphonist Jim Hart collaborate with the US trumpeter Ralph Alessi in a superb small group performance happily documented for the delectation of the jazz listening public.
The Cloudmakers Trio with Ralph Alessi
“Live at the Pizza Express”
(Whirlwind Recordings WR4625)
The Cloudmakers Trio is the latest creative outlet for the Cornish born multi instrumentalist Jim Hart. An accomplished pianist and drummer Hart is best known for his brilliance on the vibraphone and the majority of his recordings feature him on this instrument. A founder member of North London’s Loop Collective the versatile Hart has released two albums of original music with his band Gemini (“Emergence” and “Narrada”) plus a set of adventurous interpretations of jazz standards (“Words and Music” credited to the Jim Hart Quartet and released on Alan Barnes’ Woodville label in 2009).
The Cloudmakers Trio was formed specifically for a collaboration with the New York based trumpeter Ralph Alessi in 2010. For the rhythm team Hart selected his Loop Collective colleague Dave Smith (drums), who also appeared on “Narrada”, and the irrepressible American born bassist Michael Janisch. Now based in London Janisch has consistently encouraged fruitful collaborations between British and American musicians. He is a galvanising presence and this excellent live recording appears on his Whirlwind Recordings imprint. The label is becoming an increasingly significant presence on the UK jazz scene.
This album was recorded live at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho, London on the evening of 21st July 2010. The concert was enjoyed by guest contributor Tom Gray who reviewed the performance for the Jazzmann commenting that the music was “on a par with the finest post-bop around today”.
Tom’s review can be found elsewhere on the site under the artist name “Ralph Alessi & Jim Hart” and it would seem that the album is only the tip of the iceberg. In addition to the five pieces to be heard on the album Tom also makes reference to two other original tunes (“Dog Waking” and “Dark Moon”) plus a “heavily cloaked version of Dave Brubeck’s ‘In Your Own Sweet Way’”. Perhaps it is intended that a second volume will be released at some point in the future.
Back in 2008 I saw Alessi perform at Cheltenham Jazz Festival with his own group This Against That but despite the undoubted technical prowess of the musicians involved (among them bassist Drew Gress and saxophonist Ravi Coltrane) I found it all rather uninvolving and frankly a little dull. The music seemed to be overly academic and rarely caught fire but that could hardly be said about Alessi’s contribution here, he’s excellent throughout, technically brilliant and consistently engaged. I was very pleasantly surprised by just how much I enjoyed his playing in this context.
This is certainly the most open situation I’ve heard Hart perform in and the setting gives both him and Alessi the chance to shine in the company of a highly flexible and intelligent rhythm section. As Tom Gray has intimated this is a superb small group performance happily documented for the delectation of the jazz listening public at large. Writing in The Guardian John Fordham endorsed the Jazzmann boys’ opinions with a four star review that spoke of the quartet’s “intricate post bop” in the most glowing terms.
The programme consists of two Hart originals, one piece from Alessi, Thelonious Monk’s “Bye-Ya” and a seamless group improvisation. Things kick off with Hart’s “Passwords”, a tune he first recorded as member of saxophonist Stan Sulzmann’s Neon Quartet. Opening with Janisch’s sturdy bass and Smith’s brushed drum grooves the tricky theme brings the best out of Alessi who solos with clarity and assurance above the restlessly shifting rhythmic backdrop. This is complex, signature bending stuff with the whole group on its toes, senses sharpened. Everybody is totally switched on and Alessi is like a tight rope walker, fearlessly traversing the rhythmic complexities bubbling below. I’ve seen Hart perform live many times both with his own bands and in groups led by Janisch, Sulzmann and pianist Ivo Neame. He never ceases to amaze, an astonishingly fluent four mallet improviser who dazzles through a combination of flawless, often bravura technique and sheer musicality. Endorsed by American vibes man Joe Locke Hart is beginning to establish a reputation across the pond with a recent nomination in the prestigious Downbeat magazine annual poll. Although Hart is a visually arresting performer his qualities can still be appreciated on record and none more so than here where he follows Alessi’s brilliant solo with some fireworks of his own.It’s frequently jaw dropping stuff with the finely attuned rhythm section of Janisch and Smith supporting him brilliantly every step of the way.
Alessi’s “Morbid Curiosity” is slightly less frenetic but is equally complex and totally absorbing. As Tom Gray pointed out in his live review it’s easy to see why Alessi has been first call for such influential New York figures as saxophonists Steve Coleman (of M Base fame) and Tim Berne, clarinettist Don Byron and pianist Uri Caine. Hart and Alessi solo with total assurance and brilliance with Hart’s ensemble work sometimes resembling Steve Reich like rhythmic patterns. Janisch and Smith are again totally locked in to the visions of the soloists with Smith’s colourful but understated drumming subtly shaping the proceedings. Smith’s playing on this album may be his finest recorded performance to date.
Hart’s thirteen minute “A Door in the Wall” unfolds slowly and hypnotically with Alessi soloing pensively above a series of subtly shifting rhythmic vamps. Gradually the piece develops in intensity encompassing further, fierier solos from Alessi and Hart. With Janisch and Smith stoking the flames the piece achieves just the right balance between grit, lyricism and intellectual rigour before falling away to end as impressionistically as it began with brief passages of solo trumpet and a vibes/trumpet duet.
Credited to the Cloudmakers Trio plus Alessi the five minute “Improv” is as freely structured as its title might suggest but Hart’s vibes give the piece an undeniable underlying melodicism. Solo vibes open the piece, later adorned by Alessi’s inventive trumpet squiggles, Smith’s responsive drum accents and Janisch’s atmospheric bowed bass. Much has been made of Hart’s extended techniques on the vibes including the use of loops, pedals and bowing, the latter a practice often deployed effectively by Claudia Quintet’s Matt Moran. Hart uses some of these elements effectively here on a superb example of an improvised piece that comes together to create an item of spontaneous beauty.
The album closes with the quartet’s version of Thelonious Monk’s “Bye-Ya” done in the now familiar Cloudmakers style of controlled but virtuoso soloing and taut, receptive rhythmic interplay. Alessi goes first, a brilliant display of the trumpeter art above the colourful polyrhythms of Smith’s drums. Hart, too, is supremely inventive above the virile undertow of Janisch’s bass and the patter of Smith’s drums. Here as elsewhere all four members of the group relish the openness the spacious format of the group provides with Janisch contributing a lengthy, but thoroughly absorbing solo.
Superbly recorded by engineers Luc Saint Martin and Tyler McDiarmid “Live at the Pizza Express” captures both the Cloudmakers Trio and Ralph Alessi at their best and is a most welcome documentation of a wholly successful but possibly one off collaboration. The core trio continue to work together and more recent collaborations have occurred with New York based alto saxophonist Logan Richardson and Parisian saxophonist Antonin-Tri Hoang. The trio have a number of dates lined up to promote the album, those confirmed thus far are;
Derby - The Cube, Deda Chapel St, Derby, DE1 3GU 8.00pm / £10
Peterborough - The Great Northern Hotel, Peterborough 8.00pm / £13
*with Nigel Hitchcock *
London - ALBUM LAUNCH - Pizza Express, Dean St, Soho 1pm £15/£10
* special guest Antonin-Tri Hoang *
St Ives Jazz Club - The Western Hotel, Royal Square TR26 2ND 8.00pm / £12/£8
Leicester - Embrace Arts, Richard Attenborough Centre, Lancaster Road LE1 7HA
Chatham - Brook Theatre, 5 The Brook Town Centre ME4 4SE 8pm
London - Jazz Umbrella Festival The Crypt, Camberwell 8.30 pm
More information at http://www.jimhart.co.uk
In the meantime the album “Live at the Pizza Express” remains a constant joy from start to finish. I find myself envying Tom Gray for actually having been there on the night of the recording and determining to check out more of Ralph Alessi on record.
JAZZ MANN FEATURES
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