by Ian Mann
December 02, 2010
Ian Mann enjoys this live performance by the Asaf Sirkis Trio and also takes a look at their new album "Letting Go".
ASAF SIRKIS TRIO
KINGS ARMS, ABERGAVENNY, 28/11/2010
This Black Mountain Jazz date came towards the end of a lengthy tour supporting the release of drummer Sirkis’ latest album “Letting Go” (Stonedbird Productions SBPT002). The album features Sirkis’ long running trio with Tassos Spiliotopoulos on guitar and Yaron Stavi on electric bass with Patrick Bettison guesting on harmonica on two of the album’s seven tracks.
The tour has seen Bettison stepping forward to take over bass duties from Stavi who is currently touring extensively with saxophonist Gilad Atzmon. Something of an electric bass specialist Bettison has slotted in easily and also brings an extra dimension to the trio with his harmonica skills. It’s likely that this is to represent a permanent tenure with the trio.
A native of Israel Sirkis came to the UK in the late 90’s, quickly establishing himself as phenomenally gifted drummer with prodigious technical skills. He first made his name as a member of Atzmon’s long running Orient House Ensemble and he has also worked with pianist John Law, saxophonist Tim Garland and singer/songwriter Sarah Gillespie among others.
In addition to his sideman duties Sirkis also leads his own groups including this current trio plus his “space jazz” combo The Inner Noise which introduces the sound of the church organ, as played by Steve Lodder, to the jazz/rock context.
Sirkis’ records as a leader have been inconsistent and the standard of the writing hasn’t always matched that of the playing; the latter is always consistently high in terms of technical accomplishment. Experience has shown that Sirkis usually needs a couple of attempts to fully realise his vision. 2007’s “The Song Within” finally nailed it for The Inner Noise at the third attempt and it’s probably fair to say that “Letting Go” does the same for the present trio. Sirkis’ themes here are far stronger than those on the trio’s previous offering “The Monk” and it comes as no surprise that several of the items on the new record were live staples even before the album was recorded.
A year to the day since Sirkis was last in Abergavenny the core of tonight’s programme was drawn from “Letting Go” with the trio beginning with “Chennai Dream”, also the opeming track of the new album. This is a tune that’s been in the set list for some time and reflects Sirkis’ fascination with the rhythms of South India. It’s one of Sirkis’ most joyous pieces and here featured the springy, highly musical electric bass of Bettison, Spiliotopoulos’ nimble, Allan Holdsworth inspired guitar soloing and the leader’s brilliant, seemingly effortless polyrhythmic drumming.
“Other Stars And Planets” owed something to the style of Inner Noise with Spilitopoulos’ effects drenched guitar conjuring up images of deep space before soaring off into the stratosphere propelled by Sirkis’ powerful drumming. The leader’s playing was frequently dazzling, slamming out complex, crunching rhythms that utilised the whole of his expansive percussive set up. The recorded version features Bettison on harmonica but here he saved this aspect of his talent for the following “Lady Of The Lake”.With Sirkis mainly deploying brushes this represented a timely break from the high octane stuff we’d enjoyed thus far. In a live context Bettison’s harmonica adds a welcome extra dimension to the sometimes claustrophobic sound of the trio. He’s very much a jazz harmonica player, his sound very different to that of a blues harpist. Think Toots Thielemans, Gregoire Maret or even Stevie Wonder and you get some idea of where Bettison’s coming from. He’s probably not as technically gifted as those guys but his playing added greatly to the delicate tracery of sounds heard on “Lady Of The Lake”.
Sirkis dedicated the as yet unrecorded “Life Itself” to “the road”. The piece was another technical tour de force opening with Spiliotopoulos’ atmospheric guitar sound-washes which subsequently mutated into a spiralling, feedback drenched solo. Sirkis featured extensively, circumnavigating his kit above a backdrop of guitar washes and an insistent bass figure. The piece climaxed with a gargantuan guitar riff but unfortunately this seemed to cause something of a glitch with Spiliotopoulos’ amp. Unfortunately this persisted during the final number of the first set, “Letting Go” itself, one of Sirkis’ most effective and dramatic compositions, a piece that has been in the group’s live repertoire for some considerable time.
Fortunately Spiliotopoulos and Bettison managed to fix the problem during the break, toiling away as Asaf sold CDs and the rest of us tucked into the now customary and very tasty half time tapas.
It’s just as well that the problem was remediable as Spiliotopulos was extensively featured in the second set sharing the instrumental honours with Bettison on “Alone” from previous album “The Monk” and contributing an outstanding solo to “Full Moon”, another piece from the current record.
The highlight of the second set was a segue of “Waltz For Rehovot” and “Ima”, both pieces sourced from the album “Letting Go”. “Waltz..” is dedicated to Sirkis’ highly multicultural Israeli home town and here formed a feature for the Australian born Bettison. Firstly he played lovely singing, liquid electric bass before moving on to demonstrate his harmonica skills once more.
Sirkis’ drums provided the link into “Ima”, the drummer’s dedication to his mother. His use of soft head mallets produced a kind of rolling thunder as he explored the differing pitches and timbres of his various drum heads. Again the tune featured Bettison on harmonica, as does the recorded version. It’s an atmospheric and suitably moving tribute.
“Dream” from “The Monk” took things storming out with another soaring solo from Spiliotopoulos and an extended solo from Sirkis, a final reminder of his dynamism and awesome technical capability.
The small but enthusiastic crowd called the trio back for a deserved encore. This proved to be the only non original of the set, a beautiful version of Sam Rivers’ tune “Beatrice” with solos from both Bettison and Spiliotopoulos.
All the tunes from the album “Letting Go” were included in this excellent live set. The record is a good illustration of the bands strengths alternating muscular, chops heavy fusion with more impressionistic, atmospheric pieces such as “Lady Of The Lake” and “Waltz For Rehovot”. Greek born Spiliotopoulos is developing into one of The UK’s most distinctive guitar stylists (he also has two highly accomplished solo albums under his belt) and his interplay with Stavi’s always musical Steve Swallow inspired electric bass is consistently engrossing.
Sirkis himself drums with a good mix of power, intelligence and sensitivity and the album represents his strongest set of compositions to date. He’s one of the hardest working musicians around having run a successful percussion workshop on the afternoon of the gig (the previous day at Much Wenlock had seen him working in the same format).The Sirkis Trio deserve the acclaim currently coming their way and with Bettison seemingly on board full time it will be interesting to see how the group develops.
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