by Ian Mann
October 13, 2021
‘State of the art’ contemporary jazz performed by four outstanding young musicians.
Alex Hitchcock Quartet, The Hive Music & Media Centre, Shrewsbury, 09/10/2021.
Alex Hitchcock – tenor saxophone, Deschanel Gordon – piano, Will Sach – double bass, Shane Forbes- drums
Shrewsbury Jazz Network’s latest event was their first not be socially distanced and an audience of around seventy gathered at The Hive for this performance by tenor saxophonist Alex Hitchcock and his stellar quartet.
Previous 2021 performances by trombonist Rory Ingham and pianist Andrea Vicari had operated at half capacity due to still ongoing Covid restrictions but this latest event, with the audience once again sitting in rows, drew the largest SJN crowd of the year thus far.
The size of the audience indicated that fans are increasingly becoming more confident about going out to see live music, but it was also a tribute to the popularity of Hitchcock, an outstanding young musician who had endeared himself to the SJN audience on two previous visits to The Hive.
His first had been as a highly capable ‘dep’ with Misha Mullov-Abbado’s group in 2017. Review here;
Hitchcock subsequently appeared at The Hive in May 2018 leading a quintet featuring trumpeter James Copus, pianist Will Barry, bassist Joe Downard and drummer Jay Davis. My review of this event, which also includes a look at the quintet’s EP “Live At The London & Cambridge Jazz Festival can be found here;
In 2019 this same quintet released the excellent album “All Good Things” for the Barcelona based label Fresh Sound New Talent, a pioneering imprint that rarely records British artists, guitarist Tom Ollendorff is another, but which was the first to record such jazz superstars as pianists Brad Mehldau and Robert Glasper, guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. My review of “All Good Things” can be found here;
The following biographical details are largely sourced from this review;
Hitchcock completed an English degree at Cambridge University before embarking on the Jazz Course at London’s Royal Academy of Music as a post graduate. Here he studied with leading saxophonists Iain Ballamy, Julian Siegel, Martin Speake, James Allsopp and Barak Schmool, plus pianist and course leader Pete Churchill.
Hitchcock graduated in 2016 and has since been making a name for himself in a variety of musical contexts. Among those with whom he has worked are trumpeter Nick Smart, bassists Laurence Cottle, Misha Mullov-Abbado, Joe Downard, Matt Ridley and Liran Donin, trombonist Dennis Rollins, pianist John Donegan and fellow saxophonists Soweto Kinch, Stan Sulzmann, Art Themen and Tom Smith. He is also a member of Resolution 88, the funk quartet led by pianist and composer Tom O’Grady. Internationally he has collaborated with American drummer John Hollenbeck and the Franco/Belgian duo of drummer Andre Charlier and pianist Benoit Sourisse.
Hitchcock is also a talented and versatile large ensemble player whose credits include the Cambridge University Jazz Orchestra, the Royal Academy of Music Big Band, the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, the Laurence Cottle Big Band and the Andy Panayi Big Band. He is also a member of the increasingly lauded Patchwork Jazz Orchestra, a hugely talented collective of young London based jazz musicians, many of them graduates of the Academy. I was fortunate enough to witness an exciting performance by the PJO at the 606 Jazz Club in Chelsea at the 2016 EFG London Jazz Festival. Hitchcock appears on the PJO’s excellent début album “The Adventures of Mr Pottercakes”, released earlier in 2019. Review here;
Hitchcock is also a great organiser and general ‘mover and shaker’ who has previously co-ordinated the jazz programme at Camden’s award winning Green Note venue. He has worked as an Ambassador for the National Youth Jazz Collective, and in 2015 worked with promoters Serious to produce concerts at London’s Rich Mix venue through their Young & Serious programme. A genuine fan of the music he’s often to be found in the audience at gigs, supporting the work of fellow musicians.
More recently Hitchcock has joined forces with fellow tenor saxophonist Tom Barford to form the group AuB (pronounced Orb), a chordless quartet that also incorporates electronics into its sound and which also features bassist Ferg Ireland and drummer James Maddren. AuB released its excellent début for Edition Records in early 2020 and in 2021 I reviewed an exceptional livestream performance by the quartet, augmented by keyboard player Maria Chiara Argiro, from the Peggy’s Skylight venue in Nottingham.
Tonight’s visit introduced a new line up and a whole raft of freshly written material. Hitchcock was joined by pianist Deschanel Gordon, winner of the BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year Award in 2020, drummer Shane Forbes, of Empirical fame, and bassist Will Sach, the last named replacing the advertised Joe Downard.
Opener “Chrysalis” began with an extended passage of unaccompanied saxophone from the leader, which included multiphonic techniques. Bass, piano and drums were subsequently added as Hitchcock continued to solo in more orthodox jazz fashion. He was followed by Sach, whose melodic bass soloing was augmented by Forbes’ drums, the latter exhibiting an adept attention to detail and excelling in his role as a colourist. Hitchcock’s pieces are typically multi-faceted and constantly evolving and a change of pace saw the quartet upping the energy levels with Forbes adopting a far more forceful drumming style, stoking the rhythmic fires as Gordon and Hitchcock exchanged ideas, the music continuing to grow in intensity before eventually peaking and fading away.
Forbes actually introduced the next piece, a kind of abstract ballad that as yet remains untitled, with a neatly constructed brushed drum feature. Sax, bass and piano were subsequently added with Gordon embarking on a thoughtful, but expansive solo, followed by the leader who exhibited similar qualities on tenor.
“You Are Here” was inspired by a lockdown walk in a London park and saw Hitchcock stating the melodic theme before embarking on a hugely imaginative solo that combined power, fluency and agility. The impressive Gordon followed on piano, matching the leader’s inventive qualities. Although he was playing a Nord Stage 3 electric keyboard Gordon was able to generate something approaching a genuine acoustic piano sound and the quality of his playing was excellent throughout. The audience were hugely impressed and it was easy to see how he had come to be given that prestigious BBC Award. Gordon was followed by Forbes, a more experienced performer and a consistently impressive presence throughout.
The first set concluded with Gordon’s composition “Awaiting”, which Hitchcock described as being a “hidden blues”. Propelled by Sach’s walking bass lines and Forbes’ crisp drumming the piece certainly exhibited plenty of blues, and Blue Note, qualities and elicited a tumbling piano solo from the composer as Hitchcock took something of a back seat, returning towards the close to restate the staccato, bop inspired theme. This was one of the most conventional sounding pieces of the set and elicited an excellent reaction from the appreciative Shrewsbury audience.
Set two featured the first cover of the evening, an arrangement of the tune “Go East Young Man”, written by the late, great Mulgrew Miller (1955-2013), one of Gordon’s piano heroes. This modal style composition incorporated solos from both Hitchcock and Gordon. It reminded me of the time I saw Miller play an excellent set with his trio featuring bassist Ivan Taylor and drummer Rodney Green at the 2007 Brecon Jazz Festival.
The Hitchcock original “Wolf And Nina”, named for his two pet cats, was written during lockdown and exhibited a more English, pastoral feel that sometimes reminded me of Julian Arguelles. Hitchcock later told me that Arguelles had been an influence on him, but as a composer rather than as a player. Nevertheless the sophistication of the writing, the quality of the musicianship and the sheer interactiveness of the Hitchcock quartet was often reminiscent of Arguelles’ groups.
The evening’s second cover was a delightful duo arrangement of Duke Ellington’s ballad “All Too Soon”, performed with great tenderness and beauty by Hitchcock on saxophone and Sach on double bass.
This was followed by a recently written Hitchcock original with the working title “Will Sach”, clearly composed with the bassist in mind. This was ushered in by a trio of piano, bass and brushed drums with Hitchcock subsequently emerging to state the highly melodic theme before stretching out further, probing more intensely as the music gathered momentum. The members of the band again interacted with a focus and intensity that also reminded me of saxophonist Xhosa Cole’s quartet and their pre-pandemic visit to The Hive. Gordon again impressed as he took over from Hitchcock to solo on piano.
Hitchcock revealed that his next album, to be titled “Dream Band”, will be released by Fresh Sound New Talent in November 2021. The album will feature a total of fifteen musicians in a variety of different line ups, with all of tonight’s protagonists appearing at some point on the record. After tonight’s show a lengthy queue of eager listeners signed up to be sent details of the new recording when it becomes commercially available.
The performance itself concluded with “Thing With A Backbeat”, another working title. This wasn’t quite the funk outing the title might at first appear to imply, but was in fact something far more pastoral. Sach introduced the piece with a passage of lyrical, unaccompanied bass, before handing over to Hitchcock to state the wistful sax melody, with Forbes deploying brushes throughout. This was a beautiful way to round off an excellent evening of music making featuring some absolute ‘state of the art’ contemporary jazz performed by four outstanding young musicians.
Hitchcock has been a regular presence on these web pages but he continues to develop as both a musician and composer. The forthcoming “Dream Band” promises to be quite something.
The award winning Gordon was equally impressive, while Forbes’ talents are well known to me thanks to his lengthy tenure with the admirable Empirical. Although I’d heard his name Sach was the only musician who was brand new to me, but his contribution was also hugely impressive, combining some dexterous soloing with immaculate time keeping.
The quality of both the writing and the playing, added to the buzz of a ‘normal’ gig at last, made for a great atmosphere and the knowledgeable Shrewsbury audience responded with great enthusiasm to the complexities of the original material. This is a ‘provincial’ audience that is willing to support young, up and coming musicians and adventurous new compositions.
My thanks to Alex for speaking to my wife and I at some length, both at ‘half time’ and afterwards. In addition to being an exceptional musician and composer he’s also a genuinely nice guy and his affection for SJN and this venue was obvious. I wish him well with the new “Dream Band” album and look forward to hearing it in due course.
Meanwhile London audiences should look out for Hitchcock when he appears at Ronnie Scott’s on November 4th 2021 with a quintet line up featuring Gordon, Forbes, bassist Ferg Ireland and cellist/vocalist Midori Jaeger, all of whom appear on “Dream Band”. This promises to be a very special event and details can be found here;
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