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Chris Montague

Chris Montague - Warmer Than Blood Trio, Livestream presented by Jazz at the Lescar, Sheffield and Listen!, Cambridge 11/09/2020.

by Ian Mann

September 15, 2020


Ian Mann enjoys the music of the Warmer Than Blood Trio, featuring Chris Montague on guitar, Kit Downes on piano and Ruth Goller on electric bass.

Chris Montague, Warmer Than Blood Trio

Livestream presented by Jazz at the Lescar, Sheffield and Listen!, Cambridge

Chris Montague – guitar, Kit Downes – piano, Ruth Goller – electric bass

This latest performance in Jazz at the Lescar’s livestream series saw the Sheffield based promoters teaming up with their Cambridge counterparts Listen! to present a performance by guitarist and composer Chris Montague and his ‘Warmer Than Blood’ trio, featuring Kit Downes on piano and Ruth Goller on electric bass.

The trio take their name from Montague’s album of the same name, featuring the same personnel, which was released on Whirlwind Recordings in May 2020. Review here;

Originally from the North East of England Montague, first came to prominence as a member of Troyka, a trio featuring Downes on organ and Joshua Blackmore at the drums. The band released a series of albums on the Edition record label and also collaborated with the Royal Academy of Music Big Band to form Troykestra. This ensemble performed superlative big band arrangements of tunes from Troyka’s first two albums and its performance at the 2013 Cheltenham Jazz Festival was documented on an excellent live recording. Review here;

  Away from Troyka and its offshoots Montague has been a key component in groups led by the saxophonist and composer Trish Clowes and has appeared on several of her recordings.

Recently he has also worked extensively with vocalist / guitarist / songwriter Sarah Gillespie and played an important role on her latest album, the excellent “Wishbones” (2019). The album also includes substantial contributions from Downes on both piano and organ.
Review here;
Gillespie is also an accomplished painter and her artwork adorns the “Warmer Than Blood” cover.

Others with whom Montague has worked include composers Colin Towns (the ensemble Blue Touch Paper) and Django Bates, Irish drummer Kevin Lawlor, and the bands Monocled Man (led by trumpeter Rory Simmons) and Slowly Rolling Camera (led by keyboard player Dave Stapleton).
In 2014 he made a one off guest appearance at Brecon Jazz Festival with the Township Comets, a London based ensemble co-led by trumpeter Chris Batchelor and multi-instrumentalist Adam Glasser that celebrates the legacy of South African jazz.

The following year I saw Montague play his own commission at the EFG London Jazz Festival, an educational project that saw him working with local school children and also presenting a “history of the electric guitar” that took in jazz, rock and blues in the company of Conor Chaplin (acoustic and electric bass), James Maddren (drums) and Michael L Roberts (keyboards, vocals). This was a lunchtime event that took place at the Rich Mix venue in Bethnal Green and which proved to be a highly enjoyable experience.

Montague’s website also reveals that he has collaborated with an impressive array of other musicians including electronic artist Squarepusher and bands led by trumpeter Nick Smart (Trogon),  bassist Janek Gwizdala, steel guitarist BJ Cole and drummers Benny Greb (Moving Parts), Shinya Fukomori, and Charlie Watts (yes, that Charlie Watts).

The Warmer Than Blood trio finds Downes playing acoustic piano exclusively alongside the leader’s guitar and Goller’s electric bass. It’s an interesting, possibly unique, drummer-less line up, but despite the apparent limitations the trio appear to relish the challenges of performing in this format and are capable of realising an impressively broad array of sounds, textures and dynamics, as Montague himself explains;
“I love how Ruth and Kit interpret music, they were always going to be my first choice – and writing for a band without drums made us work much harder to create dynamics and shape within each piece. This brought out a whole new dimension in the compositions.”

Tonight’s livestream presentation largely placed the emphasis on material from the album and was recorded at two separate sessions. Four solo guitar performances captured at what looked like Montague’s home studio were interspersed by four performances by the whole trio, documented in what I presume was the Downes/Goller front room (the pianist and bassist are husband and wife).

Although some of the pieces that appear on the recording were omitted Montague and the trio ran through the album material in the chronological running order, beginning with Montague’s solo guitar introduction to the tune “Irish Handcuffs”.

The solo guitar passage was recorded in Montague’s studio, a building that members of the online audience variously described as looking like a “shed” or a “sauna”. This solo guitar intro is always improvised, and therefore subtly different every time, but is always based around layered, shimmering arpeggios, as here. Influenced by the principles of minimalism Montague changes one note at a time to create a “rolling, waterfall effect”.

The livestream then cut to a different session as the trio tackled “Irish Handcuffs” itself, the title a jocular reference to Irish hospitality and the presence of “a Guinness in one hand and a whiskey in the other”.  This saw the trio making use of hocketting techniques to develop an intricate lattice of interlocking melodies and rhythms, these punctuated by a more abstract and impressionistic ‘free jazz’ episode mid tune. Downes was playing an upright piano with the instrument’s strings and interior workings clearly visible, an “open view piano” as one observer succinctly described it. Thus we were able to see Downes making use of string dampening techniques during the ‘free jazz’ episode.  The fact that the sessions had been pre-recorded also allowed the musicians to join in with the on-line conversation, which was a highly illuminating and most welcome addition. “My favourite guitar bit is coming up” messaged Goller. This proved to be a passage of heavily distorted guitar that variously recalled Phil Miller (Hatfield & The North etc) and Robert Fripp, which the self deprecating Montague described as “the fire in a pet shop bit”. There was however something of a downside in that space restrictions prevented us viewers from seeing Montague’s fretboard clearly, let alone his FX pedals.

We remained with the trio for the album title track. “Warmer Than Blood” takes its title from a line in the Fiona Sampson poem “Leviathan” that appears on the album cover. The opening stages of this piece featured the delicate interplay of guitar, acoustic piano and electric bass, before progressing through a Montague guitar solo that saw Downes strumming the strings of the piano, prompting a comment that he was essentially fulfilling the role of a rhythm guitar. Downes then abandoned the interior of the instrument to deliver a lyrical piano solo that was both beautiful and rather more conventional.

We then returned to Montague’s studio for a solo guitar version of the piece “Not My Usual Type”, which appears in trio form on the album. Here Montague exhibited a Metheny like flair for melody on a composition that was structured along more conventional lines, thanks to the deployment of a written melody and chord changes. This was a piece that conjured up images of big skies and spaciousness, the sense of serenity only disturbed towards the end of the piece as Montague introduced unsettling shards of wilful dissonance.

Back to the trio for a new, as yet untitled,  piece centred around the pedal point of Goller’s electric bass pulse and with Montague and Downes exchanging slivers of melody and dovetailing in highly effective fashion, with Downes turning his head to look across at Montague as the pair responded to each others’ ideas.

“Moira”, a piece dedicated to Montague’s late grandmother was another solo guitar performance, a more impressionistic, ambient episode with the guitarist making use of live looping techniques to create a drone / soundwash effect, punctuated by subtle melodic flourishes.

The final trio performance was of the piece “Rendered”, the closing track on the “Warmer Than Blood” album. It’s a composition with an unusual genesis as these lines from my album review explain;
 It started life as a commission written for the public opening of Jimi Hendrix’s flat at Handel House and the score was initially created by rubbing manuscript onto the wood-chipped wallpaper of the 60s icon’s abode,  a process that Montague describes as “an aleatory approach” and as an experience that was both “challenging and liberating”.
Tonight’s performance of the piece saw Goller’s bass acting as the fulcrum around which the delicate melodic interplay of Montague and Downes revolved. Downes took the first solo on piano, followed by Montague on guitar, his sound more Bill Frisell than Jimi Hendrix, but with his brand of ‘Americana’ drawing the approving epithet “bluesy!” from Goller.

The livestream concluded with Montague solo, expressing his love of the music of The Beatles with his arrangement of “And I Love Her”. This brought a genuine jazz sensibility to the song, but also brought it up to date via the judicious use of live looping techniques. There was also a plaintive quality to his soloing that was highly appealing. He later revealed that he also has an arrangement of “Norwegian Wood” up his sleeve,  so that may get to feature on a subsequent occasion.

Following the performance there was a live Zoom for audience members that also included the input of Montague and Goller. The contributions of the musicians were highly illuminating with Montague talking about the challenges of working in a drummer-less format and revealing that he’d been more nervous about appearing in the livestream format than he would have been before a normal gig, a feeling that returned tonight upon watching the playback.

The sessions were recorded before Goller and Downes flew out to the Goller family home in Northern Italy, from where the bassist joined us. Downes was absent,  playing a couple of live shows in Berlin on the evening of tonight’s broadcast.  Live music may have returned in parts of Europe but Goller spoke of the challenges facing internationally touring jazz musicians with the different Covid regulations in different countries. One off events are becoming possible, but co-ordinating entire tours remains largely impracticable.

Meanwhile promoters such as Jazz at the Lescar and Listen!  continue to struggle with the logistical and economic problems of bringing live music back to their venues with the prospect of reduced audiences.  It would appear that the Livestream will continue to be with us for quite a while yet. It’s obviously not ideal but it does keep the music in the public eye and allows musicians and promoters to reach audiences who even in ‘normal’ circumstances wouldn’t have been able to attend a regular club event.

In this case it’s also sent me back to the “Warmer Than Blood” recording, which is pretty terrific and highly recommended. I had hoped to see the trio perform at the now defunct Hermon Chapel venue in Oswestry as part of their inevitably cancelled tour. Their music, with its delicate strengths, would have been ideal for that intimate venue, but tonight’s on line event proved to be a very suitable and enjoyable alternative.

Thanks to the teams in Sheffield and Cambridge for making it available to us (the sound quality was excellent throughout, including the Zoom), and to Chris, Kit and Ruth of course.

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