by Tim Owen
November 24, 2010
Each band showcased a distinct placement of the instrument in the group sound, and each featured a highly distinctive musician at the keyboard.
Hatful of Hammond-A celebration of the Hammond organ
The Vortex, London,20/11/10 (part of London Jazz Festival)
Alexander Hawkins (Hammond), John Edwards (double bass), Steve Noble (drums).
Ross Stanley (Hammond), Tom Challenger (saxophone), Dave Smith (drums), Matt Calvert (electronics).
Kit Downes (Hammond), James Allsopp (saxophone), Ruth Goller (electric bass), Tim Giles (drums).
There’s a lot of Hammond about at the moment, particularly in jazz, where the unwieldy but charismatic organ is shaping up to be the in vogue lead instrument. In America, a Hammond Quartet led by veteran bassist William Parker has respectfully picked up the baton recently passed on by the late Don Pullen and John Patton, while a more youthful elephant9 blast out of Norway on a 70’s psych rock influenced trip. The Hammond is neither the most affordable nor portable of instruments, so the surge in its popularity is as surprising as it is welcome and the Vortex - London’s premier cutting-edge jazz venue - seized the moment by enterprisingly renting out a Hammond for an entire week. The organ had already seen action at least once already, having been put to use by Oddjob just the night before (see Ian Mann’s review elsewhere on this site), but the three band line-up for Hammond Night was the main event.
Each band showcased a distinct placement of the instrument in the group sound, and each featured a highly distinctive pianist at the keyboard. The packed house was more than usually expectant, although not for long as, with three challenging sets to get through, things were soon under way. I was surprised to see Steve Noble, John Edwards and Alex Hawkins take the stage first, as Decoy are by any measure the most ?senior’ of the three bands on the bill. It was an unfortunate decision in many ways.
Decoy are also, superficially at least, the most stylistically ?traditional’, forging energetically along the great European free music tributary that diverged, in John Coltrane’s wake, from the main current of American jazz. That being said, they are also forward-thinking and pioneering artists. They are all superb soloists, yet as Decoy they demonstrate a unity of conception and purpose that on this occasion would leave the following acts, particularly Big Cat, seeming rather callow by comparison. Steve Noble, perhaps because of the time constraint, was more wholly rhythm focused than usual, and John Edwards, too, kept things taut and punchy. His low notes blended marvellously with those of the Hammond, creating a cushion of reverberatory low frequency sonics. Alexander Hawkins took the organ through its paces, varying its phrasing and sustain through the various moods of a superbly rounded set, from power surge to lowering atmospherics and ferocious swing, varying his attack from taps and slaps to long sustains.
MA’s set was a brooding slow-burner. Their first tune began with Matt Calvert live-processing Tom Challenger and Dave Smith’s sax and drums, gathering material for the body of the set. After this first phase Calvert’s transformations were less overt, and some very nicely balanced music resulted from Ross Stanley’s subtle blending of the Hammond with these electronic currents. Stanley exploited the deep, ethereal burr of the Hammond to enhance the group’s lowering atmospherics. Tom Challenger’s finely-pitched sax lines were a lovely counterpoint, often leading the music forward, and it was he who controlled the gradual accumulation and eventual diminution of tension across the two pieces they played, each of which lasted about twenty five minutes. MA were focused and deft in their navigation of the hinterland between beat inflected electronica and ambient jazz in which they operate, yet their music rather lacked purpose. They drew the audience in and held their attention, and though the set at times bordered on the monotonous a finely judged shift in dynamic always came along on cue. It will be interesting to see how MA develops.
Big Cat played as if in different rooms. Occasionally they would all converge behind a particularly solid bass groove or forceful sax solo and play with coherence, but for the most part there were four solos going on, united in one disjointed polyrhythm, but rarely with any real unity of process. James Allsopp took those sax solos with clarity and restraint and and Kit Downes’ Hammond playing was similarly subtle and understated, perhaps excessively so. Ruth Goller’s electric bass was cruelly overexposed by the necessary amplification. Goller can be a subtle player, but on this occasion she largely favoured a staccato bluntness that rhythmically fit the band’s collective dis-articulated drive, but nevertheless drove a wedge into the group sonics that made coherence seem an impossibility. On drums, in counterpoint, Tim Giles maintained a consistently clipped and disjointed rhythm. The group sometimes feature Seb Rochford as an additional drummer, and I think that his lightness of touch and peculiarly abstracted manner might have been just the thing to fill the gaps and bind everything together. A ?brief’ concluding number began as a woozy, cyclical rhythm that evoked a light-headed nocturnal dérive, and then developed into something else, a boldly delineated rhythm with a clear melody giving Downes the opportunity for some deft flourishes, exploiting the instrument’s tonal pliability. But this surprising and welcome clarity was overplayed in more than one sense. Eventually I lost patience and decided to call it a night. As I set off across Gillett Square the only thing I could hear above the nearby buzz of Dalston High Street was the isolated, even thunk of Goller’s bass.
Tim’s Star Ratings;
Decoy 4 Stars
MA 3 Stars
Big Cat 2 Stars
Overall 3 Stars
I’m surprised to read that you found Big Cat so disappointing bearing in mind that three quarters of the group (Allsopp, Downes & Giles) make up the acclaimed Golden Age Of Steam. Maybe things would have been better overall if they’d appeared in that incarnation. Seb Rochford was originally billed to appear on drums with Giles concentrating on electronics. It certainly sounds as if Rochford’s presence was badly missed.