by Ian Mann
December 12, 2016
Ian Mann on a night of excellent contemporary jazz in Birmingham with performances by the double bill of the Alison Rayner Quintet and Tom Harris Trio plus an earlier set by the Phil Meadows Project.
Alison Rayner Quintet / Tom Harris Trio
Birmingham Jazz, The Red Lion, Jewellery Quarter, Birmingham, 25/11/2016.
Bassist and composer Alison Rayner has been a stalwart of the British jazz scene for many years and is probably best known for her membership of the Guest Stars, the all female group who emerged at the time of the 1980s jazz boom alongside Loose Tubes and the Jazz Warriors.
I recall seeing her play live with the Guest Stars on the Stroller programme at Brecon Jazz Festival back in the day and I’ve also seen her perform on a couple of occasions with groups led by the trumpeter Chris Hodgkins. More recently Rayner returned to Brecon in 2015 to appear alongside her long term musical associate Deirdre Cartwright at a Festival concert curated by Brecon Jazz Club celebrating the art of the jazz guitar. Besides Cartwright the line up also included the young guitarists Will Barnes and Tom Ollendorff.
For the past twenty five years Rayner and Cartwright have run Blow The Fuse, an organisation dedicated to raising the profile of jazz in the UK with a particular emphasis on promoting the work of female jazz musicians. Besides organising regular club nights (BTF has strong links with London’s Vortex Jazz Club and Rayner is a member of the Vortex Foundation Big Band) the organisation also runs its own record label. An in demand sidewoman Rayner has played acoustic and electric bass across a variety of musical genres including jazz, funk and soul plus various types of world music. Her credits include work with guitarist Tal Farlowe, vocalist Zoe Lewis and jazz poet Jayne Cortez while her regular regular engagements include the Cartwright and Hodgkins groups plus Terryazoome, the Greek flavoured jazz act led by guitarist/bouzouki player Terry Hunt.
Cartwright and Rayner also play with the band Electric Landladies, a kind of successor to the Guest Stars. Rayner is also an acclaimed educator who has taught at a wide array of colleges and summer schools.
Given her long term involvement on the UK jazz scene it was, perhaps, something of a surprise that Rayner’s début recording as a leader didn’t appear until 2014. Released on the Blow The Fuse label “August” was a live recording of a performance at Rayner’s spiritual home The Vortex featuring a quintet including Cartwright on guitar, Diane McLoughlin on saxophones, Steve Lodder on piano and Buster Birch at the drums. This was an excellent album of contemporary melodic jazz that revealed Rayner to be a highly capable composer as well as an accomplished and versatile bassist.
The positive public and critical response afforded to “August” saw Rayner retaining the same personnel for the studio recording “A Magic Life”, an album partly financed by the Arts Council of England in conjunction with a number of private sponsors. With Lodder and McLoughlin also contributing tunes “A Magic Life” expanded upon the promise of “August” and was similarly well received by fans and critics alike.
Despite enjoying and giving correspondingly favourable reviews to both albums this was the first opportunity that I’d had to witness a full length performance from the Alison Rayner Quintet (or ARQ), although I did catch the last knockings of an EFG London Jazz Festival show in the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall a couple of years ago.
The Arts Council funding has also helped to finance ARQ’s touring schedule for 2016 / 17. With this in mind Rayner has decided to bring the Blow The Fuse initiative “Tomorrow The Moon” out onto the road. The “Tomorrow The Moon” project has seen Blow The Fuse presenting a series of events at The Vortex showcasing the talents of emerging female jazz artists. Among those featured thus far have been trumpeters Laura Jurd and Yazz Ahmed, vocalist Lauren Kinsella and various individuals from the band Nerija.
Tonight Rayner announced a support performance under the “Tomorrow The Moon” banner by an all male trio led by pianist Tom Harris and featuring Tommy Fuller on electric bass and Charlie Johnson at the drums – the trio has sometimes featured Romarna Campbell in the drum chair . Harris and Fuller are in their second year of the Jazz Course at Birmingham Conservatoire and the slightly older Johnson in the third. The drummer had appeared at the 2015 Cheltenham Jazz Festival in one of the groups at the annual Trondheim Jazz Exchange concert.
One of the pluses at the comfortable upstairs function room of the Red Lion which serves as the welcoming HQ of Birmingham Jazz is the presence of an upright acoustic piano. Harris was to make excellent use of this in a short but invigorating set that included two of his original pieces plus a brace of inspired covers.
First we heard Harris’ own “Tread” with the group delivering an energetic performance of a piece that suggested the influence of E.S.T, Neil Cowley, GoGo Penguin and other contemporary piano trios. The leader impressed with some feverish soloing as did Johnson with a powerful drum feature.
Fuller came into his own with a lovely, liquid electric bass solo on another Harris tune titled “Tunnels”, a piece exhibiting a wider emotional and dynamic range than the barnstorming opener.
However the energy levels were soon to be raised again as Fuller’s friendly sparring with Harris segued into a rollicking version of Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas” with Harris’ frequently dazzling solo just bursting with ideas prior to a concluding drum feature from the impressive Johnson.
I’d already made a note of the influence of GoGo Penguin upon the trio’s sound and Harris confirmed the veracity of my observation by declaring that the Manchester based trio were his trio’s favourite band. All this presaged a spirited and energetic cover of “Garden Dog Barbecue”, a tune from Gogo Penguin’s second album “v2.0” with a drum groove inspired by Aphex Twin.
This was a hugely enjoyable set by the Tom Harris Trio, three highly talented young musicians that we will surely be hearing a lot more from, both individually and collectively. Harris’ original tunes also underlined his considerable potential a composer.
The overwhelmingly positive audience reaction totally justified their inclusion on the programme – support acts are not a regular feature at Birmingham Jazz events – and helped to underline the positive benefits of the Tomorrow The Moon scheme.
It was also good to speak with Tom and Charlie afterwards and to learn that Tom is a multi-instrumentalist who also plays saxophone in the provocatively monikered ensemble Bare Brass, a band who perform regularly around Birmingham to raise money for the charity Water Aid. Great musicians and nice guys too, well done lads!
And so on to the main event with Rayner and her quintet taking to the stage to perform two sets of original material sourced from both the “A Magic Life” and “August” albums. Lining up as on the albums the quintet began with the Eberhard Weber inspired “Musicophilia” with Rayner’s bass initially taking the melodic lead before handing over to McLoughlin’s tenor sax. The superb blending of melody and rhythm characterises the quintet’s music and both these qualities were much in evidence here together with the rich, colourful ensemble textures. Solos were shared between Rayner and Cartwright.
The title track from the latest album was introduced by Rayner’s bowed bass and eventually featured all the members of the band as the solos were shared around democratically with McLoughlin featuring on soprano sax, Lodder on piano, Cartwright on guitar and finally Birch at the kit with a neatly constructed drum feature.
From the same album McLoughlin’s “New Day” saw the composer moving back to tenor and contributing some powerful soloing as she shared the limelight with Cartwright and Lodder.
The majority of Rayner’s compositions have some kind of story behind them and many are inspired by personal life events. The gentle, blues inflected “Swanage Bay” was informed by a nostalgia for childhood holidays, its evocative melody first sketched out by the composer’s bass and with Lodder subsequently exhibiting a laudably lyrical touch at the piano. A word, too, for Birch’s exquisitely delicate cymbal work.
An excellent first set concluded on a more energetic note with “Half A World Away”, a Rayner tune sourced from the “August” album. Here Birch’s bustling drum grooves helped to inspire exceptional solos from McLoughlin on tenor, Cartwright on guitar and Lodder on piano, all three exhibiting great assurance and fluency.
Set two commenced on a similarly upbeat note with “Mr. Stanley”, the opening tune on the “August” album. This was Rayner’s tribute to the great Stanley Clarke, a formative influence on the composer’s own playing with Rayner replicating Stanley’s electric sound on acoustic bass and alluding to Clarke’s famous “School Days” riff with further solos coming from McLoughlin on soprano, Lodder on piano and Cartwright on guitar.
From “A Magic Life” the tune “Trunk Call” proved to be a strong audience favourite. This playful piece is a paean to the beauty of the Indian elephant and was introduced by Birch at the drums, his rumbling toms and thudding bass drum accents sounding suitably elephantine. The solos by Lodder on piano, McLoughlin on soprano and Cartwright on guitar stayed true to the essential joyousness of the tune while Rayner brought a remarkably authentic Indian feel to the piece with a bass solo that deployed both arco and pizzicato techniques to replicate the timbres of a sitar.
Lodder’s three part “OK Chorale” is the lengthiest title on the “Magic Life” album and combines compositional ambitiousness with the kind of light-heartedness inherent in the title. Solos here came from Cartwright on guitar and McLoughlin on tenor plus Birch at the drums before a closing chorale section featuring some stunning piano pyrotechnics from the composer.
From the same album Rayner’s “Friday’s Child” calmed things down a little. A delightful dedication to the composer’s late mother this brief but lovely piece featured a melodic bass introduction, again revealing signs of the influence of the great Eberhard Weber, with Rayner later picking up her bow on the coda. In between we heard pithy solos from Lodder’s lyrical piano and McLoughlin’s warm toned tenor.
Those readers of a certain age may remember Deirdre Cartwright as one of the presenters of BBC TV’s Rock School programme. On Rayner’s tune “Mayday” Cartwright brought back memories of those days as she temporarily swapped her jazz guitar for a Fender, turned up the volume and “channelled the spirit of Marc Bolan” (her words) while making extensive use of the tremolo arm. Oh, yes, there was a bass solo from the leader too.
We were firmly back in jazz territory for the boppish “Queer Bird” with its allusions to Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. Lodder sounded suitably Monk-ish as he shared the solos with Cartwright, back on jazz guitar, McLoughlin on tenor and Birch at the drums.
A thoroughly deserved encore came in the shape of “String Theory”, a lively tune sourced from the “August” album. Rayner and Birch combined to create a busy boogaloo style bass and drum groove which fuelled wildly inventive final solos from Cartwright, Lodder and McLoughlin. The guitarist’s spiralling inventions included some of her most inspired playing of the evening while McLoughlin squeezed a quote from Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love” into her barnstorming tenor solo.
I was delighted to have seen a full length performance from ARQ at last. Their blend of melodic, highly personal compositions peppered by articulate and often fiery solos was very well received by a knowledgeable Birmingham Jazz crowd.
My thanks to Alison for speaking with me before and after the gig and also to Phil Rose and his team at Birmingham Jazz for making me so welcome. Also congratulations to Birmingham Jazz who celebrated their 40th anniversary this year with the publication of an informative anniversary brochure and a special series of additional Saturday night gigs. Well done to all concerned.
Prior to this enjoyable and hugely successful night at the Red Lion I had attended the free early evening jazz event promoted by the Jazzlines organisation in the Café Bar at Symphony Hall.
Tonight’s band was the London based Phil Meadows Project, the new quartet recently assembled by the saxophonist and composer Phil Meadows. I’d recently seen the group at the EFG London Jazz Festival and enjoyed their performance so I was more than happy to see them again.
This evening’s show included many of the pieces that had been played at London although the band line up featured two changes with Rob Luft (guitar) and Jay Davies (drums) replacing Alex Munk and Will Glaser respectively. Meadows, moving between tenor and soprano saxes, plus Flo Moore on acoustic and electric basses were common to both performances.
Despite having seen this music played in London less than two weeks previously I very much enjoyed seeing and hearing it again. There are plans for a new album plus a full scale UK tour from this new band in 2017 and on the evidence of these London and Birmingham shows this is something that is going to be well worth waiting for. Whatever the line up the Phil Meadows Project is already a highly accomplished band with a high level of group interaction.
The material played tonight included pieces written specifically for this band plus new arrangements of tunes originally written for previous projects. The set list included “Fin”, “Five More Minutes” “Intoxicated Delirium” and “Trashlantis”.
For a fuller review of the London performance please visit;
Meanwhile 2017 dates for the Alison Rayner Quintet (ARQ) are as follows;
A Magic Life Tour
March 8 Sheffield Lescar
March 9 Nottingham Jazz Steps, Bonington Theatre
March 10 Lincoln Jazzpac, The Collection
March 11 Leeds Jazz at Heart
March 23 Poole, Sound Cellar
March 24 Exeter, Barnfield Theatre
March 22 Torquay Speakeasy
March 31 Birmingham Jazzlines
April 2 Colchester Arts Centre
April 27 Cellar Bar, The Old Market, Hemel Hempstead
June 13 Brecon Jazz Club
June 16 Swansea, Taliesen Arts Centre
November 20 Appledore, Beaver Inn
November 21 St Ives Jazz Club
November 22 St Austell, The Bosun’s
Further dates tbc
More information at http://www.blowthefuse.com
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