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Alex Clarke Quartet

Alex Clarke Quartet, Kidderminster Jazz Club, St. Ambrose Parish Centre, Kidderminster, Worcs. 05/04/2024.

by Ian Mann

April 08, 2024


An excellent evening of straight-ahead jazz with some fine playing all round from a very talented all star quartet.

Alex Clarke Quartet, Kidderminster Jazz Club, St. Ambrose Parish Centre, Kidderminster, Worcs. 05/04/2024

Alex Clarke – alto & tenor saxophones, David Newton – piano, James Owston – double bass, Clark Tracey – drums

Alex Clarke is a young saxophonist with a growing reputation. Her second album “Only A Year” was released in 2022 on the Stray Horn record label and attracted a considerable amount of critical acclaim. The album featured Clarke’s playing on both alto and tenor saxophones in the company of some real British jazz heavyweights in the shapes of pianist David Newton, bassist Dave Green and drummer Clark Tracey. The album features a couple of Clarke originals in addition to her arrangements of a diverse range of jazz and bebop standards. My review of the recording can be found here;

The album line up has proved to be more than just a one off alliance and tonight’s line up included both Newton and Tracey, with the young talent that is James Owston on double bass. Both Clarke and Owston have been BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year finalists, an indication of the quality of tonight’s quartet. Clarke was also voted the winner in the Rising Star category at the 2019 British Jazz Awards and was a nominee in the Parliamentary Jazz Awards in both 2021 and 2022. jazz Awards 2021 & 2022,

Equally adept on alto and tenor saxophones, an unusual ‘doubling’ combination, Clarke is also an accomplished clarinettist and flautist. Her versatility and her willingness to work across a variety of musical genres ensures that she is a musician who is constantly in demand.

As well as leading her own groups, notably her quartet and the New Orleans inspired Alex Clarke Hot Five, Clarke works regularly with the jazz/blues/country pianist /vocalist TJ Johnson. She is also a regular member of the Jake Leg Jug Band, an outfit that specialises in Prohibition Era jazz and blues. She is also a member of the Birmingham based Ska 45s and of Detroit Magic, a six piece soul band.

An alumnus of the National Youth Jazz Collective Clarke has also worked with large ensembles such as Swingtime, the Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Orchestra. Simon Spillett Big Band, Fat Chops Big Band and the Paul Barry Big Band. As an accomplished sight reader she is also in demand as a member of the pit band for musical theatre productions. She also plays ‘function’ gigs.

Clarke is an important member of the band led by trumpeter Chris Hodgkins that released the 2022 album “A Salute To Humphrey Lyttelton”. She appears on tenor sax and clarinet and is also featured as an arranger. A review of this recording can be found as part of a Jazzmann feature about Hodgkins here;

More recently Clarke played saxophones and flute on Clark Tracey’s latest album “Introducing Emily Masser” (2024), which features the vocal talents of rising star jazz singer Emily Masser. The album line up also includes Owston on bass and Graham Harvey at the piano. A typically classy and accomplished offering made under Tracey’s astute leadership the album is reviewed here;

Other leading UK jazz musicians with whom Clarke has performed include fellow saxophonists Alan Barnes and Art Themen and trumpeter Bruce Adams.

I first saw Clarke perform at the 2022 Brecon Jazz Festival when she appeared as a guest soloist with two different acts, the Jane Williams Band and The Numbers Racket. She is also an acclaimed educator and prior to these two live performances had presented a workshop for young jazz musicians elsewhere in the town.  My account of Clarke’s two Brecon appearances can be found as part of my Festival coverage here;

In January 2023 Clarke appeared at Black Mountain Jazz Club in Abergavenny as part of a quintet that also featured fellow saxophonist Dan Newberry.  The two young reed players were accompanied by the Club’s house band, the BMJ Collective, at that time led by drummer Alex Goodyear and featuring pianist Eddie Gripper and bassist Clem Saynor.  This initially ‘one off’ alliance was so successful that Clarke now has further work in the pipeline in the company of Goodyear, Gripper and bassist Nick Kacal. My review of that excellent performance at Abergavenny can be found here;

Meanwhile guest contributor Trevor Bannister enjoyed a performance by a Clarke quartet featuring Tracey, Dave Green and pianist Rob Barron at the Progress Theatre in Reading in June 2023. His account can be found here;

As a saxophonist Clarke has named her main influences as being Scott Hamilton and Lester Young on tenor and Phil Woods, Cannonball Adderley and Vincent Herring on alto, but as tonight’s set list suggested there are also many more.. .For such a young musician her approach is uncharacteristically mainstream, but Clarke has a deep and uncompromising love for this style of jazz and has no desire to become a slave to musical fashion.

Her debut album “Mirage” was released in 2018 and featured pianist Tom Kincaid, bassist Ed Harrison and drummer Eryl Roberts.  The recording featured  Clarke’s arrangements of jazz standards plus lesser known tunes by Tubby Hayes, Harold Arlen and others.  In 2019 she also appeared on the album “Songs from the Jazz Country” by the TJ Johnson Band.

But it’s with “Only A Year” that Clarke’s solo career has really taken off, the presence of names like Tracey, Newton and Green causing both the critics and the jazz public to sit up and pay attention. As a result Clarke’s quartet has become an increasingly popular attraction on the UK jazz circuit.

Tonight’s performance was an unashamedly mainstream session featuring a selection of jazz standards plus some lesser known compositions from the likes of saxophonists Bobby Wellins and Jimmy Heath.

The leader began on alto sax, stating the theme and taking the first solo on the jazz standard “The Way You Look Tonight”. Owston’s bass and Tracey’s vigorously brushed drums provided the necessary rhythmic impetus for the soloists with Newton immediately following, his playing on the venue’s recently acquired upright acoustic piano proving to be both swinging and expansive. The increasingly in demand Owston, a real rising star on his chosen instrument, followed on double bass. Finally Clarke and Newton traded fours with Tracey, ensuring that this lively opening number represented an excellent introduction to the four individual musical voices in the band.

Clarke moved to tenor for “The Dolphin”, a tune associated with Stan Getz that was first introduced to her by Clark Tracey. This was a more lyrical, moderately paced offering with Clarke stating the theme before handing over to Newton for the first solo. Clarke then stretched out more extensively on tenor either side of a double bass solo from Owston.

Clarke returned to alto for “It’s You Or No One”, a Jule Styne / Sammy Cahn song that features on the “Only A Year” recording. This was ushered in by Owston at the bass, with Clarke subsequently taking the theme and taking the first solo. Newton is rightly regarded as one of the best mainstream jazz pianists in the UK and his dazzling solo was brilliantly supported by Tracey. Owston was again featured at the bass, prior to a concluding drum solo that saw Tracey making unusual and highly effective use of hi-hat and bass drum.

The quartet had stretched out at length on every number thus far and suddenly we came to the last tune of the first set. This was “CUCB”, a composition written by the late Bobby Wellins (1936-2016) in homage to the trumpeter Clifford Brown (1930-56) that appeared on Wellins’ 1993 album “Nomad”. Wellins played in Stan Tracey’s groups (most famously on the celebrated “Under Milk Wood” recording), which represented a neat link to tonight’s quartet.
This was a piece that saw Clarke moving back to tenor to solo powerfully above the driving rhythms generated by Newton, Owston and Tracey. She was eventually followed by Newton, who delivered another excellent solo. A great way to round off an absorbing and enjoyable first half.

The second set began in much the same manner as the first with a high energy opener. In this case it was an arrangement of the Miles Davis composition “Solar”, which was introduced by bass and drums, with Clarke subsequently stating the theme on alto and taking the first solo. Newton took over to deliver what was arguably his finest solo of the night, his fingers positively dancing over the keys. The impeccable Owston was again featured at the bass prior to a series of dynamic exchanges between Tracey, Clarke and Newton as the drummer ‘traded fours’ with sax and piano.

Next up was the wonderfully titled “Sound For Sore Ears”, a rarely heard composition by the Philadelphia born saxophonist Jimmy Heath (1926-2020) and another tune introduced to Clarke by Tracey. A loosely structured intro gave way to a swinging groove, with Clarke stating the theme on tenor before handing over to Newton for a typically inventive piano solo. Clarke then followed on tenor before eventually handing over to Owston.

A second tune from the “Only A Year” album followed, the curiously titled Billy Strayhorn composition “Ballad For Very Tired And Very Sad Lotus Eaters”. This was a genuine ballad and was performed by the duo of Clarke and Newton as Owston and Tracey temporarily vacated the stage. The performance featured the melancholy sound of the leader’s tenor sax and included a passage of delicate, unaccompanied piano from Newton.

The jazz standard “There Is No Greater Love” saw Clarke switching back to alto and remaining on the smaller horn for the rest of the evening. With bass and drums restored to the line up the piece commenced in piano trio mode, with the swish of Tracey’s brushes imparting a gentle swing. Tracey switched to sticks as the momentum began to build during the course of Clarke’s alto solo, but reverted to brushes for Newton’s furtively imaginative piano solo and Owston’s double bass feature. The drummer was also featured with a series of brushed breaks towards the close.

The second set concluded with a vibrant rendition of the Cole Porter song “Just One Of Those Things” with solos from Newton and Clarke plus a closing drum feature from Tracey.

An enthusiastic audience response ensured that Club organiser Annette Gregory had no difficulty in persuading the band to remain on stage for a deserved encore, an arrangement of the Clifford Brown composition “Sandu”, a tune that has become a modern jazz standard. Clarke’s theme statement was followed by a Newton piano solo, with Clarke’s own solo at one point accompanied by Owston’s bass only. This led into a melodic double bass feature before the full band coalesced around Brown’s tune to bring the evening to a close.

All in all this was an excellent evening of straight-ahead jazz with some fine playing all round from a very talented all star quartet. If pushed I think I probably preferred Clarke on tenor and I’d have liked to have heard a few more of her own compositions, the “Only A Year” album features a couple of these, including the title track.




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