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Brandon Allen with the Steve Melling Trio

Brandon Allen with the Steve Melling Trio, The Hive Music & Media Centre, Shrewsbury, 10/05/2014.

Photography: Photograph of Brandon Allen sourced from the Shrewsbury Jazz Network website [url=][/url]

by Ian Mann

May 14, 2014


Allen's adventurous arrangements plus the quality of the playing ensured that this was a notch ahead of many other standards gigs, turning the merely routine into a genuine event.

Brandon Allen with the Steve Melling Trio, The Hive Music & Media Centre, Shrewsbury, 10/05/2014.

Brandon Allen is an Australian born tenor saxophonist who has been based in London for a number of years becoming a welcome presence on the UK jazz scene. He has previously appeared on these web pages on recordings by his fellow Aussie the guitarist Blake Wilner and as co-leader, with trumpeter Quentin Collins, of a hard hitting quartet featuring organist Ross Stanley and drummer Enzo Zirilli. This band, also sometimes known as Drugstore Cowboy, released the highly enjoyable album “What’s It Gonna Be?” in 2011.

Other sightings of Allen have been in the bands of guitarist Chris Allard and drummer Clark Tracey, last months visitor to The Hive. Tracey’s quartet featuring both Allen and tonight’s pianist Steve Melling gave an excellent performance at the inaugural Titley Jazz Festival back in 2010. 

Allen is a muscular but highly lucid tenor soloist, a specialist on his chosen instrument, and his powerful contributions enhance every setting in which he finds himself. Tonight’s performance was originally scheduled to feature Allen as guest soloist alongside the “house trio” of pianist Paul Sawtell, bassist Tom Hill, and drummer Miles Levin. With Sawtell unavailable Allen asked if it would be possible for his old mate Steve Melling to do the gig and with no offence intended towards Sawtell Melling’s presence was something of a bonus for the Shrewsbury audience. As Geoff James has observed on the Shrewsbury Jazz Network website “Steve is a world class pianist”.

Unfortunately numbers were a little down on the previous two Shrewsbury Jazz network events at The Hive, both the Clark Tracey and Jean Toussaint gigs had been virtual sell outs. Nevertheless there were enough enthusiastic listeners to turn this into an enjoyable event as Allen led the group through a set of imaginative arrangements of jazz standards with Billy Strayhorn proving to be a very popular composer with the leader. Allen promised us an evening of “nice tunes, nothing too testing” and indeed much of the material was very familiar but Allen’s adventurous arrangements plus the quality of the playing ensured that this was a notch ahead of many standards gigs deploying the head / solos / head format. The musicians were allowed plenty of room to stretch out and their solos took the music into some very interesting areas with the leader really pushing the envelope at times.

The evening kicked off with the quartet tackling the Gershwin composition “Soon”, Allen’s arrangement inspired by Tubby Hayes’ interpretation of the tune. Thus we heard plenty of hard blowing Tubby style tenor from Allen and a typically inventive solo from Melling who still managed to sound good and find plenty to say on his Yamaha electric keyboard. Allen was observed clapping along happily, encouraging his old friend to new heights as the pianist was driven on by Hill’s propulsive bass and Levin’s firmly struck drums and sizzling cymbals. Although based in Birmingham Hill hails from the USA making this a truly international group. An in demand figure on the Midlands jazz scene the popular Hill is a supremely accomplished technician and a highly imaginative bass soloist. This piece contained the first of many excellent bass features over the course of the evening.

Throughout the evening Allen was seen dishing out hand written charts for his musicians to peruse, occasionally also giving out verbal instructions. After allowing his colleagues a few moments to digest his arrangements he would softly declare “rehearsal over!” and the band would launch into the tune. It’s a tribute to the skill of the musicians and their fluency in the universal language of jazz that order quickly stemmed from this apparent chaos. Thus Billy Strayhorn’s ballad “The Star Crossed Lovers” was given a subtle bossa nova treatment and sounded great with Allen’s long lined, gently probing tenor solo followed by a typically inventive Melling contribution on piano . When Allen returned he deliberately roughed up the surface, probing more deeply and adding elements of wilful dissonance. There was also time for Hill to shine again at the bass before a final restatement of the theme.

Fat’s Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” was turned into a good natured tear up with Allen digging in on tenor and with Melling’s flamboyant solo incorporating block chords, keyboard sweeps and dazzling right hand runs. Local hero Levin also impressed in a series of powerful exchanges with Allen as the pair traded eights.

Strayhorn’s enduring “Lush Life” cooled things down a little. Almost incredibly this stunningly mature and world weary song was written when the composer was still in his teens. A true ballad it showcased a more tender side of Allen’s playing and developed from a tenor sax / piano duet to embrace more conventional jazz solos from Allen and Melling. These were underpinned by Hill’s deep, rich bass undertow and Levin’s delicately brushed drums. Hill also featured briefly as a soloist, combining resonance with lyricism.

The first set ended with a radical Allen arrangement of Michel Legrand’s “What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life”, normally played as a ballad but here performed in a swinging, upbeat manner over a sixteen bar loop with plenty of room for the leader to express himself. Allen’s impassioned, high octane tenor pushed both Legrand’s tune and his own instrument to their limits, Levin matching him for dynamism with a correspondingly kinetic drum solo. An exhilarating way to end an enjoyable and often intriguing first half.

Set two began relatively gently with the standard “I Get Along Without You Very Well” in an arrangement inspired by the Chet Baker version of Hoagy Carmichael’s song. Beginning in ballad mode before progressing to a medium fast tempo the piece incorporated solos from Allen, Melling and Hill with Levin affecting the moves from brushes to sticks as the tune developed.

Strayhorn’s “UMMG” (the initials standing for Upper Manhattan Medical Group) was written in the twilight of the composer’s life when Strayhorn was suffering a terminal illness. Allen’s arrangement brought the best out of Steve Melling, the pianist sparkling above the backdrop of Hill’s rapid bass walk and Levin’s crisp drumming. There were also features for Allen on tenor and Hill at the bass.

Melling suggested the inclusion of Wayne Shorter’s classic “Speak No Evil”, Allen describing Shorter as “a great composer and saxophone stylist”. It seemed an apposite choice bearing in mind that 2014 represents the 75th anniversary of the founding of Blue Note Records for whom the “Speak No Evil” album was recorded. With inspired solos from Allen and Melling and with Hill making dramatic use of the bow in the closing stages this was a piece that was particularly well received by the knowledgeable Hive audience.

This set’s ballad moment was represented by Bronislaw Kaper’s “My Lady Sleeps”, a tune recorded by Chet Baker, Phineas Newborn and others. Played as a slow blues it included features for Allen, Melling and Hill with the pianist in particularly good form, his playing both expansive and expressive.

The set closed with Jerome Kern’s “The Song Is You” , Allen’s hard driving arrangement featuring his own blistering tenor and Melling’s piano before a series of dynamic exchanges with Levin appeared to bring the tune to a climax. Instead Allen returned to reprise his earlier contribution, pushing his horn to its limits with a combination of bat like squeaks and guttural r’n'b style honking.

For all its spontaneity this had been a well paced performance and this high energy closer left the audience wanting more. After a brief consultation the quartet selected Thelonious Monk’s “Blue Monk” as their encore, a familiar and popular choice. All the band members got to feature with Melling sounding appropriately Monk-ish. Hill unleashed a bag of tricks in his bass feature, first picking out the melody before producing a series of jaw dropping glissandi, flamenco style strumming and audacious double stops. It finished with Allen and Melling playfully trading fours with Levin, an enjoyable end to an unpretentious evening of music making that incorporated some adventurous arrangements and some wonderful playing.

In some respects this was just another provincial “guest soloist plus local rhythm section standards gig” but the quality of both the arrangements and the playing took it beyond this, turning the merely routine into a genuine event.     

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