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Alex Hitchcock Quintet

Alex Hitchcock Quintet, The Hive Music & Media Centre, Shrewsbury, 12/05/2018.


by Ian Mann

May 22, 2018


Ian Mann enjoys a performance by the Alex Hitchcock Quintet and takes a look at their new EP "Live At The London And Cambridge Jazz Festivals".

Alex Hitchcock Quintet, The Hive Music & Media Centre, Shrewsbury, 12/05/2018.

Alex Hitchcock (tenor saxophone), James Copus (trumpet & flugel horn), Will Barry (keyboard), Joe Downard (bass), Jay Davis (drums).

Alex Hitchcock is a London born saxophonist, composer and bandleader who is generally considered to be something of a rising star on the UK jazz scene. He 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, bassist Laurence Cottle, trombonist Dennis Rollins and fellow saxophonists Soweto Kinch, Stan Sulzmann and Art Themen. 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.
That show is reviewed as part of my Festival courage 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 music of fellow performers. Currently he is looking to organise a regular London club night provided he can find a suitable venue.

Despite all his other musical activities Hitchcock’s main creative focus is his own quintet, a band with an increasingly burgeoning reputation. This Shrewsbury performance was part of an extensive UK tour in support of the group’s début recording, a live EP documenting performances at the 2016 London Jazz Festival and 2017 Cambridge Jazz Festivals. Clocking in at nearly forty minutes the EP features four lengthy tracks and would have been considered a full length ‘LP’ back in the old days. Simply titled “Live At The London And Cambridge Jazz Festivals” it features the distinctive ‘real time’  artwork of London based artist Gina Southgate who painted the band’s image as they played.

Hitchcock had previously visited Shrewsbury in 2017 when he appeared on tenor sax with bassist Misha Mullov-Abbado’s group as a late ‘dep’ for regular incumbent Sam Rapley. It was his first appearance with that particular line up but Hitchcock acquitted himself superbly, something encouraged by the fact that he had already worked regularly with all the other members of the band in the Patchwork Jazz Orchestra.  Hitchcock’s skill and adaptability that night was much admired by the Shrewsbury audience and his return to The Hive leading his own outfit was very keenly anticipated. My appetite had also been whetted by a highly favourable review of an earlier performance by the quintet at the Progress Theatre in Reading by regular Jazzmann contributor Trevor Bannister in which he compared Hitchcock’s group with the classic Miles Davis Quintet.
Trevor’s words can be read here;

The quintet that Hitchcock brought along was his regular working group and the exact line up that appears on the EP with James Copus on trumpet and flugel, Will Barry at the keyboard, Joe Downard on double bass and Jay Davis at the drums. I think I’m correct in believing that all are alumni of the Academy.

With the exception of one composition by Wayne Shorter the focus was very much on Hitchcock’s own writing. The performance began with “Wojciech”, a tune from the EP and one dedicated to a Polish jazz fan from Krakow who famously plied the band with vodka. It was immediately noticeable that despite the complexity of the material none of the band members played from sheet music, a fact that signified their familiarity with Hitchcock’s material, plus their willingness to improvise and take musical risks.  Also, with the horns un-miced, the performance was almost entirely acoustic, with the exception of Barry’s electric keyboard, a necessity at this venue. Wisely Barry adopted a classic ‘Fender Rhodes’ electric piano sound throughout rather then trying to replicate the sound of an acoustic instrument. Following an opening theme statement by the two horns Copus took the first solo on trumpet, his playing fluent, expansive and dynamic. He was followed by some spirited interplay between the trio of Barry, Downard and Davis, culminating in a drum feature which proved to be the segue into the following piece. This was the quirky, yet to be recorded “Hamburg 2010”which featured further subtly probing interaction between the members of the trio plus the punchy playing of the horns in a 21st century updating of the classic ‘Blue Note sound’.

Shorter’s “Time of the Barracudas” was a quintet setting of a piece written for Gil Evans’ nineteen piece big band. Here it was ushered in by Hitchcock’s unaccompanied tenor, the leader subsequently joined by Barry at the piano in an introduction that also featured the sounds of the tenor’s keypads. Hitchcock took the first conventional jazz solo before being joined by Copus on flugel for a series of thrilling musical exchanges. Copus then took over, again impressing with his distinctively incisive and attacking sound on the flugel.

Hitchcock’s “Mint” was introduced by the ethereal trilling of Barry’s piano arpeggios, these subsequently complemented by Davis’ odd meter, hip hop influenced drum grooves with the combination of tenor sax and flugelhorn eventually stating the theme. Copus’ lengthy flugel solo combined elegance with skill and stamina. For many audience members the impressive Copus was emerging as the star of the evening, almost threatening to upstage the leader.

“Adjective Animal” closed an impressive first set, introduced again by Barry at the keyboard, this time joined by double bass prior to the opening theme statement by tenor and trumpet. Barry took the first solo, followed by Hitchcock, who went some way to redressing the balance with a powerful and fluent tenor sax solo. Finally Davis brought the curtain down with an absorbing drum feature that saw him exchanging ideas with Downard and Barry.

Set Two commenced with “Gift Horse”, one of the pieces featured on the quintet’s live EP. Barry again provided the introduction, aided by Downard, with the two horns, in this case trumpet and flugel, then combining to state the theme. Hitchcock’s fluent but probing tenor solo saw him stretching out, followed by Barry at the keyboard. A more jagged, turbulent passage suggested the influence of the New York Downtown scene with Barry attacking his keyboard feverishly as he relished a second soloing opportunity.

The opener was segued with the more groove orientated “Mobius” with Downard, Davis and Barry providing the necessary propulsion for a fiery tenor solo from Hitchcock followed by a series of explosive exchanges between the leader’s sax and Copus’ trumpet. Davis, an intelligent and impressive presence throughout, also excelled with a closing drum feature.

“Context”, another track from the EP, was something of a feature for former NYJO member Copus, this time on flugelhorn. Like many of Hitchcock’s compositions this evening the piece was introduced by a passage of unaccompanied piano from Barry with the two horns subsequently stating the theme against a backdrop of rippling arpeggios. Copus’ flugel solo began gently and lyrically, his sound reminiscent of the late, great Kenny Wheeler, a tantalising blend of fragility balanced by an underlying assurance and eloquence. Initially accompanied by a grounding bass pulse, twinkling keyboards and atmospheric cymbal shimmers Copus gradually began to ramp up the intensity to attain a full on, anthemic magnificence.

“Happy Ending”, which actually opens the EP, closed the second set here. Introduced by bass and drums, quickly joined by electric piano, this proved to be one of the quintet’s most energetic and dynamic numbers with Barry leading off the solos followed by Hitchcock on tenor. This was arguably the leader’s best solo of the night, a fluent and fiery exploration above clipped, cerebrally funky grooves. Copus’ trumpet solo initially lowered the temperature, accompanied at first by only bass and drums. Gradually he began to ramp up the intensity, exchanging ideas with Barry’s keyboards as the energy levels began to build once more.

The deserved encore proved to be Hitchcock’s “Blues for J.C.”, a dedication to both Copus and John Coltrane. This was the most ‘straightahead’ number of the night with its rapid bass walk and boppish head prompting another stunning solo from Hitchcock, one liberally peppered with Coltrane quotes. Davis then featured at the kit in an extended series of exchanges with the other members of the band.

The Shrewsbury audience was highly appreciative of the music created by this hugely talented young band. Hitchcock and his colleagues delivered an effective updating of the tradition, embodying many of the bebop and hard bop virtues yet never resorting to the clichés. The band have cited contemporary artists such as Kneebody, Phronesis, Ambrose Akinmusire and Django Bates as influences but Coltrane and Miles Davis remain touchstones too. This was thoroughly adventurous modern music but with deep enough roots for the audience to hold on to.

Interestingly the recorded versions of the tunes “Happy Ending”, “Gift Horse”, “Context” and “Wojciech” sound substantially different to the renditions tonight, suggesting that improvisation really does play a key part in the quintet’s performances. This is jazz played in the true spirit of the music with each performance substantially different to the last. We’re lucky to have young musicians of this calibre continuing to carry the flame.

The EP, which retails for just a fiver is highly recommended.It is available from Alex’s website

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