Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


Alex Garnett

Alex Garnett Quartet at Dempsey’s, Cardiff, 06/09/2011.

by Ian Mann

September 07, 2011


An impressive quartet performance with several of the pieces differing significantly from the album..

Alex Garnett Quartet, Dempsey’s, Cardiff, 06/09/2011.

The much loved British saxophonist Alex Garnett recently released his long awaited début recording as a leader. The album, “Serpent”, has received unanimously favourable reviews, not least from this site. Recorded in Brooklyn the album teamed Garnett and his long time collaborator Michael Janisch (double bass) with New York musicians Anthony Wonsey (piano) and Willie Jones III (drums). The two Americans, or maybe three if you count Janisch who is now resident in the UK, make a huge contribution to the record but the ultimate triumph is Garnett’s, his sharply intelligent compositions give his colleagues plenty of ideas to get their teeth into.

For this second date of a British tour in support of the album Garnett and Janisch were joined by the UK based musicians Ross Stanley (piano) and Andrew Bain (drums). With Garnett sticking to tenor throughout the quartet played the majority of the tunes on the album (perhaps advisedly they omitted the notoriously tricky title track) plus a couple of brief standards. This was only the second time this particular quartet had played together, Bain having recently replaced Enzo Zirilli in Garnett’s UK quartet, but already it was obvious that the band were building a chemistry with several of the pieces differing significantly from the record.

As on the album they began with “Lydia”, a fast and furious opener guaranteed to clear any cobwebs. Ross Stanley quickly proved himself to be more than a match for the album’s Anthony Wonsey, his fingers flying across the keys in a dazzling opening solo that even threatened to upstage Garnett. The leader responded with some fiery tenor and Bain weighed in with a series of sparky drum breaks. Both live and on record this is a piece that grabs the listener by the lapels and gives them a damn good shaking. 

Still following the pattern of the album the quartet followed this with “Three for a Moor” which Garnett announced as being a tribute to Dexter Gordon. This was more considered with Bain picking up the brushes during the gentle opening exchanges, later switching to sticks as Garnett began to probe more deeply and aggressively. Stanley followed with his customary intelligence and we also heard the first of several excellent solos from Janisch, a player with huge rhythmic drive but also an intelligent and highly dexterous soloist.

I was a little surprised to learn just how big an influence Charlie Parker has been on Garnett’s playing. Perhaps it’s a British thing, Garnett, a tenor player is greatly influenced by Parker while the UK’s leading alto player, Peter King talks of the growing influence of John Coltrane on his own playing. In any event “Blueprint” took on a much more Parker-ish hue than the recorded version with feverish bebop influenced solos coming from Garnett, Stanley and Janisch punctuated by Bain’s busy drum breaks.

A segue of standards completed the first half beginning with Mal Waldron’s ballad “Soul Eyes” which featured Stanley at his most lyrical followed by a remarkable duet between Garnett and Janisch as Stanley and Bain temporarily dropped out. The group followed this with a brief rendition of one of Miles Davis’ early bebop pieces simply entitled “The Theme” with solos coming from Garnett, Stanley and Janisch. Although written by Davis it still all sounded very Parker-ish to me.

All in all this had been a good first half with the quartet quickly warming to the task and obviously enjoying themselves. The second set was even better as they began to relax even more. A remarkable solo bass intro led the way into a fiery rendition of the Latin flavoured “The Pimp” with a powerful tenor solo from Garnett and an equally bravura solo from Stanley. The energy levels were much greater than on the record and as a live item the tune proved to be highly exciting.

The recorded version of “Dracula’s Lullaby” is pretty much a straight ballad but the live version concentrates on the first word of the title with creepy arco bass, sax overblowing and cymbal scrapes. Simultaneously combining an atmospheric eeriness with a degree of theatricality this was another number that took on a fresh identity in a live setting.

“Saluda Hakim”, another unabashed Parker homage, quickly raised the energy levels again. Chock full of Parker quotes Garnett admits to compiling the tune from Charlie’s cast offs. Not that that’s a bad thing, the tune is hugely enjoyable and formed the vehicle for more sparkling solos from Garnett, Stanley and finally Bain at the drums.

They finished with the album closer “Atonement”, here announced as “When The Saints Go Marching In”. Garnett has taken this hoariest of old jazz tunes and re-harmonised it, subtly but brilliantly recasting it in an entirely contemporary context. Solos came from Garnett and Stanley and the piece also included a final drum feature for Bain.

A modest but knowledgeable Dempsey’s crowd containing most of the Cardiff Jazz regulars gave them a great reception for an impressive quartet performance. Bain is still settling into the group and it’s likely that the overall performance will get even better as the tour progresses. Garnett is a fluent, highly able tenor soloist and a skilled composer and you know exactly what you’re going to get with Janisch, consistently one of the finest bass players in the country. However Stanley’s contribution was the biggest and in many ways most enjoyable surprise. I’ve seen and heard him many times before on both piano and organ but I don’t think I’ve ever seen him solo as effusively as here. He’s a superb technician and a first choice sideman for many musicians but often seems to be playing within himself. Garnett gave him his head and he grabbed the opportunity to cut loose with both hands (literally) and his solos were frequently dazzling. He’s back at Dempsey’s in a couple of weeks time (September 20th) playing organ with guitarist Mike McKnight’s quartet which also features guest saxophonist Seamus Blake so I hope to check him out again then. In the meantime I’d urge readers to get out and see the Alex Garnett Quartet if you can.

The remaining tour dates are;

Thursday 8 September: Ronnie Scotts, 47 Frith St, Soho, London W1D 4HT * UPDATED
020 7439 0747 Gig 7:15 (1 hour set)

Saturday 10 September : 606 Club, 90 Lots Road, London SW10 0QD
020 7352 5953 / Doors 6:30 PM // £8

Wednesday, 14 Sept: The Hideaway 2 Empire Mews, Streatham SW16 2BF *LAUNCH PARTY*
020 8835 7070 Doors 7pm, Music 8.30pm // £10

blog comments powered by Disqus