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Brandon Allen Quartet

Brandon Allen Quartet plays Gene Ammons, The Hive Music & Media Centre, Shrewsbury, 13/05/2017.

Photography: Photograph of Brandon Allen by Melody McLaren sourced from [url=][/url]

by Ian Mann

May 16, 2017


Allen and his colleagues surpassed the usual limits of the ‘jazz tribute’ thanks to their innovative arrangements, inspired soloing and all round superb playing.

Brandon Allen Quartet plays Gene Ammons, The Hive Music & Media Centre, Shrewsbury, 13/05/2017.

Shrewsbury Jazz Network’s May event featured a welcome return to the town by saxophonist Brandon Allen who last visited The Hive in 2014 leading a band featuring pianist Steve Melling, bassist Tom Hill and drummer Miles Levin.

This time round Allan brought along his regular London based quartet, a stellar line up featuring some of the UK’s leading jazz musicians with Ross Stanley at the keyboard, Arnie Somogyi on acoustic and electric bass and Matt Home at the drums.

Allen’s imaginative arrangements of jazz and bebop standards had been a distinctive feature of his previous appearance and this time he turned his attention to the output of one musician, the American saxophonist Gene Ammons (1925 – 74).

Chicago based Ammons was the son of boogie woogie pianist Albert Ammons (1907 – 49). Like Allen Gene Ammons was a tenor sax specialist and in a career stretching through the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s he recorded prolifically in a variety of jazz styles ranging from the swing and bebop of the 40s and 50s to the soul jazz of the 60s and 70s. His career was interrupted by two fairly lengthy jail terms for narcotics offences, a factor that may partially account for the fact he never quite acquired the recognition that his undoubted talents deserved. Allen certainly regards Ammons as a hugely underrated musician and cites the Chicagoan as a major influence on his own playing style.

Ammons first came to public attention as a member of vocalist Billy Eckstine’s band. Apparently it was the singer who bestowed Ammons with the nickname “Jug” when the saxophonist’s band uniform hat didn’t fit – I’d assumed the nickname came from all the time Ammons spent “In The Jug”. 

Ammons followed his time with Eckstine with a stint in clarinettist Woody Herman’s Second Herd before later embarking on a solo career. Among those he worked with were pianist Mal Waldron and trumpeter Donald Byrd but Ammons was particularly noted for his collaborations with fellow saxophonists including such big names as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Sonny Stitt, Jackie McLean and Dexter Gordon.

During the course of two lengthy, but thoroughly involving sets, Allen and his band-mates presented a thorough overview of Ammons’ career beginning in the swing era and ending up with the soul jazz of the ‘70s.

Playing totally unmiked Allen summoned up an impressive power on the invigorating opener “Baby Won’t You Please Say Yes”, his marathon solo fuelled by Somogyi’s pumping bass and Home’s crisp, swinging drumming. Somogyi’s powerful bass plucking was so forceful that for the listener it felt almost physical. Meanwhile the sound of Allen’s feet stamping on the Hive’s wooden floor added another layer of rhythm to the music and spoke volumes about Allen’s level of involvement with it. Stanley and Somogyi responded to the gauntlet thrown down by the leader with impressive solos of their own. Finally Home enjoyed a series of scintillating drum breaks as he traded eights with Allen and Stanley. This was an absolutely blistering start

Allen’s version of the blues “Please Send Me Someone To Love” was inspired by the Ammons album “Live In Chicago”. Proceeding at a steady chug the piece included authentically bluesy solos from Allen and Stanley, the latter deploying an acoustic piano sound on his Nord keyboard. Somogyi, a band-leader in his own right ( who can forget the much loved Ambulance group), was also to feature again at the bass.

“The Breeze And I”, a tune associated with both Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman, saw Allen stretching out convincingly on the somewhat corny theme, closely followed by Stanley at the piano and finally the excellent Home at the drums.

The waltz “Lucille” began as a moody ballad before picking up considerable momentum via the solos of Stanley, Alle and Somogyi.

However the song “I Sold My Heart To The Junkman” was treated to a true ballad performance with lyrical solos from Allen, Somogyi and Stanley as Home provided sympathetically brushed accompaniment. The song was originally recorded by the vocalist Etta Jones, with whom Ammons also worked. The versatile Ammons was noted for the lucidity and sensitivity of his ballad playing and Allen and his colleagues displayed these same qualities here.

The first set concluded with the first offering from Ammons’ later period. “Piece (or was it Peace) To Keep Away Evil Spirits” combined a modal bluesiness with a soupçon of funk in another powerful performance that ensured the first half ended as energetically as it had begun.  Allen’s barnstorming solo incorporated more foot stomping and self congratulatory whoops of joy that elicited laughter from Stanley at the keyboard. But when his turn came the pianist more than matched him for intensity with one more of many dazzling solos. The trading of eights then developed into a more extended drum solo as the quartet brought the curtain down on an impressive first set that lasted for an hour and a quarter - that’s a full performance at many jazz festivals. 

The crowd loved it and everybody was excited to see what the quartet would deliver in the second half. Things kicked off with a swinging take on “Red Sails In The Sunset”, a tune that Ammons had recorded with Sonny Stitt. Solos here came from Allen ,Stanley and Somogyi as the quartet quickly re-established the first set energy levels.

“The People’s Choice” dated from the ‘60s soul jazz era and placed a strong emphasis on the groove with solos coming from Allen, Stanley and Somogyi.

During his career Ammons enjoyed a degree of commercial success and had an early hit with the song “My Foolish Heart”. He never went as far out as Coltrane and others and it’s perhaps due to his more commercial leanings that he’s relatively under appreciated today. I’ll admit to not knowing a great deal about him prior to tonight’s performance so Allen’s role bringing him to the attention of the contemporary jazz audience is something to be welcomed.

In the 60s and 70s Ammons was happy to play the pop hits of the day and the rest of the Allen group’s performance was to be very different as Somogyi swapped his double bass for a Fender Precision electric model and Stanley switched the sound of his keyboard to electric piano mode, the classic “Rhodes” sound if you will.

Thus configured they treated us to arrangements of three funky, hard grooving tunes, all of them highly familiar, drawn from the pop lexicon of the 60s and 70s. First we heard an instrumental version of the Temptations hit “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” that suggested Ammons be thought of as the “father (or even grandfather) of ‘acid jazz’”. Allen’s muscular r’n’b tinged tenor solo also contained a number of avant garde flourishes hinting at the more radical sounds of the Civil Rights movement.

Michael Jackson’s “Ben” was given a buoyant groove with Allen’s extended solo again rooted in the sounds of r’n’b while Stanley’s feature brought a pleasing element of funk to the table.

Finally we heard the song “Son Of A Preacher Man”, famously a hit for Dusty Springfield. Allen’s declamatory tenor solo temporarily saw the group in saxophone trio mode but Stanley’s keyboards also brought an appropriately gospel feel to the music as Somogyi’s electric bass and the clatter of Home’s sticks on rims laid down an irresistible funk groove, one that didn’t stop even when Home circumnavigated his kit, still underpinned by the relentless churning of Somogyi’s bass.

These three pieces were wholly different to what had gone before but they were still loved by an appreciative Shrewsbury audience.

Allen and his colleagues had delivered two lengthy, value for money sets filled with good music but with the curfew fast approaching it wasn’t possible for them to play a deserved encore. Not that anybody could possibly have had grounds for complaint in the light of what we’d just heard.

Allen had confirmed his status as a major tenor sax soloist and the band were just terrific. This was a tightly focussed quartet who were right on top of their individual and collective games. My only disappointment was that Stanley hadn’t brought his Hammond B3 with him, given that Ammons made a number of albums with organists I’d rather hoped to hear the ‘Big Beast’. But this was a superb evening of music nonetheless with Allen and his colleagues surpassing the usual limits of the ‘jazz tribute’ thanks to their innovative arrangements, inspired soloing and all round superb playing.

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