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Acoustic Triangle

Acoustic Triangle, The Edge Arts Centre, Much Wenlock, Shropshire. 26/11/2011.

by Ian Mann

December 05, 2011


After ten years there's still plenty of life in Acoustic Triangle and tonight's concert definitely felt like a celebration.

Acoustic Triangle, The Edge Arts Centre, Much Wenlock, Shropshire, 26/11/2011.

This concert represented the last date of a UK tour celebrating the tenth anniversary of the group Acoustic Triangle. Malcolm Creese’s chamber jazz trio originally consisted of himself on double bass, multi reed player Tim Garland and pianist John Horler and was itself a direct descendent of an earlier drummerless trio featuring Crease, Horler and reeds man Tony Coe.

Horler left after the first album and was replaced by the younger, more classically orientated Gwilym Simcock. With Simcock in the band the trio embraced their collective classical leanings more openly, pioneering a unique blend of the jazz and classical genres but without diluting the essence or tradition of either. Playing entirely acoustically they frequently took their music into spaces not normally associated with jazz, often playing in churches and other sacred buildings whilst wooing a new and previously untapped audience for their music in the process. Acoustic Triangle’s fan base reaches out beyond the regular jazz demographic making them a hugely popular live act who always attract large audiences, tonight being no exception.

The group’s story has been a fascinating process with the trio developing their style across four albums- “Interactions” (2001), “Catalyst” (2003), “Resonance” (2005) and the ambitious “3 Dimensions” (2007) which successfully added the sound of strings to the trio’s core sound. I have been lucky enough to see the group live on a number of previous occasions with two of these taking place in sacred buildings, Dore Abbey in Herefordshire and Worcester Cathedral, the latter of these performances also incorporating strings. The third concert took place in the Regency splendour of Cheltenham’s Pittville Pump Rooms with the group performing to a mainly classical audience. It’s probably fair to say that Acoustic Triangle tailor each concert to fit the audience and room they are playing to and tonight at Much Wenlock was no exception. The Edge’s Artistic Director Alison Vermee has established a sizeable and loyal jazz following in this small Shropshire town and in what I’m sure was a direct response to a jazz loving audience in a secular setting the trio turned in the most obviously “jazz” performance I’ve ever seen them give. Even without the absence of drums there were moments when they were really swinging.

Having said that there was no compromise of the trio’s methods, they still played entirely acoustically-no amps, no mics, no pick ups and, crucially, no mixing desk. They were positioned much further forward than is normal at The Edge with the audience partially surrounding them in a kind of “horseshoe” formation. Everybody that I spoke to afterwards said that they had heard the group perfectly which was quite a tribute to the excellent acoustics of this relatively new venue.

The trio began with Garland’s “Winding Wind” with the composer’s woody bass clarinet combining well with the rich sounds of Creese’s bowed bass and Simcock’s dampened piano strings. After this atmospheric introduction things really took off as Garland switched to soprano sax, soloing exuberantly as his colleagues offered energetic, even swinging support. Simcock’s piano solo exhibited a similar freshness with the impish Garland swaying and moving and clicking his fingers in time to the rhythm. The subsequent dazzling exchange of phrases between saxophone and piano brought this first piece to a thrilling conclusion. Acoustic Triangle had captivated their audience from the start.

Next the group turned to their classical side with Garland’s arrangement of Maurice Ravel’s hundred year old “Trois Poeme De Stephane Mallarme”, a piece which actually appeared on their first album. Garland’s work on soprano sax, alternately breathy and keening, was punctuated by a lengthy passage of solo piano. Creese, in the anchor role, moved between arco and pizzicato as the music dictated.

All three members of Acoustic Triangle have, at some point in their careers, worked with the venerable trumpeter and composer Kenny Wheeler. Arguably Wheeler’s most famous composition a lovely version of “Everyone’s Song But My Own” came next, introduced by Creese on solo double bass. The leader then entered into a fascinating dialogue with Garland who had now switched to the tenor saxophone before the emphasis subtly changed to the piano with the excellent Simcock gradually taking over.

Creese, who normally handles the announcing duties, was suffering with a heavy cold so in the main Garland and Simcock introduced their own tunes. Simcock explained that on “Plain Song” he was looking primarily for simplicity and this pureness of form was expressed in the unadorned beauty of the piece. The soloists-Garland on tenor, Creese on bass and Simcock at the piano each provided their own take on something that the celebrated cornet player Ruby Braff (1927-2003) would have described as “the adoration of the melody”.     

The trio’s fascination with the nature of sound itself was epitomised during the introduction to Cole Porter’s “All Of You” with Garland placing the bell of his tenor sax directly inside the raised lid of Simcock’s grand piano. The reverb that this generated was little short of astonishing, a church like echo that reminded me of the sound of Jan Garbarek at his most glacial. Later in the tune Garland delivered a more conventional jazz solo that climaxed with r’n'b style honking, not something you’d normally associate with Acoustic Triangle. Simcock matched him with an equally bravura piano solo, this was the sound of a band responding to their audience and enjoying a little last night fun.

The first set concluded with Simcock’s “Barber’s Blues”, a dedication to Samuel, the modern classical composer, rather than Chris the jazz trombonist. However as Simcock explained Samuel Barber (1910-1981) had a strong interest in jazz rhythms and harmonies and this piece was inspired by Barber’s early 20th Century works. Simcock introduced the piece at the piano, playing initially with the left hand only with Garland, on bass clarinet, and Creese on solo double bass subsequently taking up the reins. Garland switched to soprano sax for an exceptional solo before returning to bass clarinet following Simcock’s contribution.

This had been a lengthy first set full of adventurous, brilliantly played music. Although the classical components that form such an important part of Acoustic Triangle’s sound were all very much in place the overall feeling was that this had been an hour or so of absolutely outstanding jazz, a quality that the trio were to carry over into a slightly shorter but equally absorbing second set.

The second set began with a segue of Garland tunes with the beautiful folkish melodies of “Black Elk” featuring the composer on bass clarinet. A passage of solo piano provided the bridge into “Bourdin”, based on a French dance and featuring all manner of tricky time signatures. However this kind of stuff is meat and drink to Acoustic Triangle who collectively handled the complexities with aplomb with Simcock soloing joyously at the piano whilst negotiating some treacherous looking left hand figures. He was matched by Garland’s equally mercurial work on soprano sax.

The group had learned that American guitarist and composer Ralph Towner had played The Edge earlier in the year as one half of a duo featuring Sicilian trumpeter Paolo Fresu. They decided to acknowledge this with their version of Towner’s beautifully melodic composition “The Glide”, making for a nice piece of musical symmetry. The interplay here between Garland on tenor sax and Simcock at the piano was particularly engrossing. Nice one.

Garland’s “Rosa Ballerina”, a dedication to his then six year old daughter was another example of Ruby Braff’s dictum with Garland’s soprano sax cherishing the beautiful melody.

The trio closed the second set with their adaptation of pianist John Taylor’s ebullient “Coffee Time”. Simcock opening up the proceedings with a dazzling solo piano improvisation. Garland followed him on soprano sax before the mood changed with an abstract central passage involving interior piano scrapings and grainy arco bass and bass clarinet. The closing stages marked a return to the playfulness and exuberance of the first section with the trio throwing some flashes of musical humour into the mix.

The Edge crowd absolutely loved this and called the trio back for a deserved encore. This proved to be a beautifully emotive version of Bill Evans’ “Blue In Green” featuring the delicately rounded sounds of Garland’s tenor sax in a superbly controlled performance that was almost plaintive at times. Creese was featured using the bow on the intro before switching to pizzicato for a resonant and lyrical solo. Simcock’s unhurried, thoughtfully lyrical contribution seemed to channel something of Evans’ spirit into the evening.

This was a terrific way to conclude what had probably been the best performance I’ve seen from Acoustic Triangle. Being primarily a jazz fan I responded readily to the jazz and swing elements of their performance and to the sheer joy of it, they were all clearly having great fun despite Creese’s bouts of the snuffles. This was also one of the lengthiest performances I’ve seen at this venue and purely in those terms the evening was great value for money. The Edge’s jazz regulars clearly felt the same and gave them a great reception. It also helps that all three are such pleasant, approachable, charming chaps and after the concert they were all happily chatting away to fans in the foyer. After ten years there’s still plenty of life in Acoustic Triangle and tonight’s concert definitely felt like a celebration.

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