by Ian Mann
April 26, 2021
All the members sparkled individually, but, even more importantly, AuB also convinced as a BAND, bound together by a unified concept and by the intelligent and original writing of Barford & Hitchcock
AuB, Livestream from Peggy’s Skylight, Nottingham, 24/04/2021.
Alex Hitchcock – tenor saxophone, Tom Barford – tenor saxophone, Conor Chaplin – double bass,
James Maddren - drums, Maria Chiara Argiro – synthesisers
This latest livestream from Peggy’s Skylight, presented by the Jazz Steps organisation, featured the band AuB, co-led by tenor saxophonists Alex Hitchcock and Tom Barford.
Pronounced “Orb”, the group is usually a quartet featuring the co-leaders on saxes, together with the superb rhythm section of Chaplin and Maddren, two of the most in demand exponents of their respective instruments in the UK. For tonight’s performance the band was augmented by guest musician Maria Chiara Argiro, a bandleader in her own right, who was tellingly credited as appearing on synthesisers, as opposed to ‘piano’ or ‘keyboards’.
Signed to the Edition record label AuB recorded their eponymous début album in 2019, a recording that I have yet to hear. All of tonight’s material was sourced from the album, which finds Hitchcock, Barford and bassist Ferg Ireland all doubling on synthesiser, with electronics evidently forming an important element in the AuB group sound.
Both Hitchcock and Barford have featured regularly on the Jazzmann web pages, both as the leaders of their own groups and as prolific sidemen.
Hitchcock leads his own quintet, with whom he released the EP “Live at the Cambridge and London Jazz Festivals” in 2018 and the full length studio album “All Good Things” in 2019. My review of the studio album, from which the following three paragraphs have been drawn, can be read here;
Among those with whom Hitchcock has worked are trumpeter Nick Smart, bassists Laurence Cottle, Liran Donin, Misha Mullov-Abbado and Joe Downard, pianist John Donegan, trombonist Dennis Rollins 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 has also been a member of the much lauded Patchwork Jazz Orchestra, a hugely talented collective of young London based jazz musicians, many of them graduates of the RAM.
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 his fellow performers.
Born into a musical family Tom Barford began learning the saxophone at nine, later progressing into the ranks of the National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO) and going on to study at the Royal Academy of Music, graduating from the Jazz Course with First Class Honours in 2017.
Barford’s first group as a leader was the quintet Asterope, (Barford (reeds), Billy Marrows (guitar), Rupert Cox (piano), Flo Moore (double bass) and Dave Storey (drums), with whom he appeared at the 2016 Brecon Jazz Festival as part of the Brecon Jazz Futures programme curated by jazz educator Marc Edwards.
Re-christened as the Tom Barford Quintet the Asterope line up appeared on “Bloomer”, Barford’s excellent leadership début for Edition Records, released in 2018 and financed by the prize money from Barford’s 2017 Kenny Wheeler Jazz Prize. My review of “Bloomer” can be read here;
Barford is also a prolific sideman who has worked with groups led by pianists Barry Green and Alberto Palau, bassist Mark Trounson, trumpeter Tom Syson, trombonist Olli Martin and alto saxophonist Tom Smith.
Others with whom Barford has performed include the Guy Barker Big Band and the London Super Sax Project. He has shared a stage with his saxophone mentors Evan Parker and Iain Ballamy and made a cameo appearance on “Juniper” the latest release from keyboard player (and Edition label owner) Dave Stapleton’s Slowly Rolling Camera project.
Hitchcock handled the announcements at tonight’s livestream but the writing credits were shared between the co-leaders. The group name comes from set theory, literally ‘A union B’, two conjoined sets often depicted graphically as overlapping circles. It’s a visual image that serves as a perfect depiction of the co-leaders’ approach. Twin tenor line ups are not exactly rare in jazz but the two saxophonists have historically often been depicted as rivals in some kind of ‘cutting contest’.
As their group name suggests AuB’s approach is very different. There is no sense of competition between Hitchcock and Barford, instead they aim for a relationship that is far more symbiotic. I was often reminded of the chemistry between Pete Wareham and Mark Lockheart in the much missed Polar Bear, the hugely influential band led by drummer and composer Seb Rochford, which must surely have been an inspiration for AuB.
Electronics were also a crucial part of the Polar Bear sound, provided in the main by the maverick experimental musician and sound artist Leafcutter John. Tonight’s contributions from Chiara Argiro were less wilfully eclectic and were largely concerned with supplying additional colour and texture, but they still constituted an important component of the AuB performance.
The evening began with “Ice Man”, introduced by a virtuoso passage of unaccompanied tenor saxophone from Hitchcock that saw him making effective use of circular breathing techniques and utilising the instrument’s key pads as auxiliary percussion. Barford subsequently joined him, quickly followed by the rest of the group. The inter-dependence and spirit of co-operation between the two saxophonists was immediately apparent as Barford played the melody line above Hitchcock’s recurring sax vamp, with Chaplin the next featured soloist as he delivered an expansive and melodic statement, supported by Argiro’s synth washes and Maddren’s deft drum and cymbal embellishments. Chaplin and Maddren subsequently established a clipped funk groove that provided the impetus for Barford’s solo, the twin saxes eventually coalescing before diverging once more for Hitchcock’s solo, then coming together again for a final statement of the overall theme. This was music that ebbed and flowed, always exuding a true group sensibility and a unity of purpose, even during the course of the various individual features.
Barford’s aptly titled “Dual Reality” was ushered in by the interplay of the twin tenors, dovetailing together in a consistently interesting blend of unison melodies and counter melodies. This proved to be a richly atmospheric piece with dual sax dialogue subsequently augmented by Argiro’s synth drones, Maddren’s cymbal shimmers and Chaplin’s anchoring bass.
Speaking between tunes Hitchcock informed us that the organisers had arranged for all the musicians and crew to have Covid tests prior to the event, an interesting fact that the online audience may have been unaware of. He also praised Jazz Steps and the Peggy’s Skylight venue, and particularly the latter’s take away food offerings. The band had obviously been very well fed before the show.
Closely linked to the food theme was Hitchcock’s composition “Calvados”, named for the apple derived spirit from Normandy and dedicated to bassist Joe Downard. Chaplin and Maddren established a muscular, hip hop influenced groove, which fuelled the opening unison theme statement from the reeds. Barford’s solo was underpinned by Hitchcock’s sax vamp and the increasingly propulsive bass and drum groove laid down by Chaplin and the grinning Maddren. Hitchcock’s own tenor solo was both powerful and expansive and the piece also saw Argiro’s synths coming to fore, both as a soloist and in dialogue with Maddren’s cymbals. The use of electric keyboards allied to the powerful sax soloing and ferocious grooves recalled the music of American saxophonist Donny McCaslin’s group with keyboard player Jason Lindner, bassist Tim LeFebvre and drummer Mark Guiliana – Bowie’s Blackstar band, if you will.
This was a style that continued into Barford’s “Groundhog Tuesday”. This was introduced by the two saxes, with the co-leaders later joined by woozy synths and a mesmeric bass and drum groove, this again provoking expansive and full bodied solos from both Barford and Hitchcock, and with the twin saxes again dovetailing towards the close.
Following two particularly dynamic performances in “Calvados” and “Groundhog Tuesday” AuB revealed their gentler side on Barford’s “Valencia”, described, quite rightly, by Hitchcock as “a beautiful tune”. The introduction featured a unison sax melody, subtly shadowed by Chaplin’s double bass and Maddren’s sympathetic brush work. There was a folkish, song like quality about the theme, although the piece couldn’t quite be described as a ballad with Maddren changing from brushes to sticks as the music gradually began to gather momentum. With Argiro sitting out entirely this was a performance that demonstrated the close rapport of the core quartet.
The livestream concluded with a performance of the opening track on the album, the provocatively titled “Not Jazz”. The introduction saw Hitchcock and Barford standing aside as the piece was ushered in by a bass and drum dialogue, with Chaplin and Maddren subsequently joined by the whoosh and whistle of Argiro’s synths. The addition of the twin saxes saw the emergence of a jagged, Coleman-esque melody, albeit with a modern twist. Arguably the most varied and dynamic performance of the night this multi-faceted piece saw Hitchcock and Barford exchanging ideas over a hard driving, polyrhythmic bass and drum groove and the rich panoply of Argiro’s synths, deploying an array of sounds ranging from cheesy retro to widescreen quasi-orchestral. Out of this swirling array of sounds emerged a flamboyant drum feature from the irrepressible Maddren, aided and abetted by his partner in rhythm , the consistently excellent Chapman. It marked a fitting climax to a group performance that both intrigued and excited.
Although I have covered the playing of these individual musicians before in a variety of contexts this was my first exposure to the music of AuB and I have to say that I was very impressed. All the members sparkled individually, but, even more importantly, AuB also convinced as a BAND, bound together by a unified concept and by the intelligent and original writing of Barford and Hitchcock. This was music rooted in the jazz tradition, but which was happily free of cliché and was also consistently evolving and mutating.
Although influences such as those of Polar Bear and Donny McCaslin could be detected, and possibly those of Chris Potter and Michael Brecker too, AuB were still very much their own band, and a defiantly British one at that. I’d certainly be happy to hear more from them.
Once again congratulations to Jazz Steps and to Peggy’s Skylight for a high quality livestream featuring some of the UK’s best young jazz musicians.
‘After Hours’ coverage featuring previously unseen material from the Dave Storey Trio and Chris Montague’s Warmer Than Blood, the bands featured on the first two Jazz Steps livestreams from Peggy’s Skylight, is now available for viewing via the Jazz Steps Youtube channel
Presumably more music from AuB will subsequently become available, so do make sure to check this out.
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