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John Law’s Opt Trio

John Law’s Opt Trio, Black Mountain Jazz, Kings Arms, Abergavenny,27/02/2011

by Ian Mann

February 28, 2011


An excellent evening of quality contemporary piano jazz.

John Law’s Opt Trio

Black Mountain Jazz, Kings Arms, Abergavenny, 27/02/2011

Tonight’s gig represented a welcome return to Black Mountain Jazz for pianist John Law who last appeared here two years ago with his Art Of Sound Trio (a show reviewed elsewhere on this site).

I’ve always regarded Law as one of Britain’s most underrated pianists and and his “Art Of Sound” series, consisting of two albums of trio performances plus two sets of solo piano recordings, is consistently excellent. With the Art Of Sound Trio the emphasis was very much on Law’s original compositions with the pianist being joined by bassist Sam Burgess and drummer Asaf Sirkis. “Congregation”, the second of the trio sets saw Law experimenting with grooves and electronica in the style of E.S.T. and doing so very convincingly. The “Opt” project sees him taking a step back from this to focus his attention on outside material -the “Opt” band name is a pun, the letters standing for “Other People’s Tunes”. Inevitably these are invariably jazz standards, but the new trio’s repertoire also includes pop tunes by the likes of Nick Drake and Sting.

The Opt trio has a fluid line up, Burgess has gone, presumably to concentrate on his work with Tom Cawley and Curios, and for this performance Russian double bassist Yuri Golubev, perhaps best known to UK audiences for his work with Gwilym Simcock, came into the fold alongside Law and Sirkis. Bassist Tom Farmer and drummer Daoud Merchant have also featured in the group at various times as evidenced by a very good, but unofficial, live recording that Law is currently selling at gigs.

Initially I was a little disappointed to discover that Law was using an electric keyboard exclusively for this performance-on his previous visit he had switched between acoustic and electric- but the enthusiasm and sheer quality of his playing quickly won me over. The Opt Trio trade in rigorous, frequently time shifting, deconstructions of well known material with the emphasis very much on imaginative arrangements and the resultant musical dialogue between the players. Broadly speaking it’s very similar to the approach taken by Brad Mehldau, a musician Law openly acknowledges as an influence- but Law and his colleagues look as if they’re having much more fun.

Not many jazz groups enter the stage to their own introductory music but the Opt Trio is a notable exception. As BMJ’s resident sound engineer cued up Tom Waits’ brilliant version of Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere” (from Waits’ excellent “Blue Valentines” album) Law and his colleagues took up position behind their instruments. They looked rather sheepish as they waited for Tom to growl his way through the West Side Story classic, the BMJ budget hadn’t run to a piano tuner, let alone dry ice!

As the strains of Waits’ voice died away the trio commenced with their own interpretation of Bernstein’s tune, introduced by Law’s solo piano and with Golubev subsequently undertaking the first conventional jazz solo of the evening. The Russian, now based in Italy, initially trained and worked as a classical bassist and this heritage was particularly apparent when he worked with Gwilym Simcock. In the Simcock trio Golubev made extensive use of the bow but tonight he played exclusively pizzicato, concentrating purely on his role as a jazz bassist. He is, of course, a phenomenal technician and Law, quite rightly, allowed him a good deal of space. All of Golubev’s solos throughout the evening were fluid, logical, effortlessly dexterous and frequently dazzling. As a support player he was also excellent , meshing together with long term Law associate Sirkis to form a flexible, intelligent and inherently tasteful rhythm section. It was a joy to watch Sirkis perform in this context with the emphasis on communication rather than power. Sirkis can really drive a band as he has demonstrated both with Gilad Atzmon and with his own projects but here he switched regularly from sticks to brushes to soft heads and back again in a keenly intelligent interpretative display. 

The jazz standard “It Could Happen To You” was a typically rigorous and busy deconstuction exercise with the dialogue between Law and Sirkis particularly engrossing and with Golubev weighing in with another typically excellent solo.

Law and Sirkis also kicked off a delightfully playful version of Thelonious Monk’s “Straight No Chaser” as the trio really started to build up a head of steam. Law’s pleasingly abandoned piano solo was followed by typically virtuosic feature for Golubev and a series of dynamic and ever varying drum breaks from Sirkis.

In total contrast Oscar Levant’s ballad “Blame It On My Youth” was given a warm, lush interpretation in an innovative arrangement by young American pianist Aaron Parks. Law was able to wring a surprising about of emotion from the electric piano in a lovely trio performance of this much covered classic.

Steve Swallow’s “Falling Grace” is rather more of a modern classic and has become something of a favourite among pianists. John Taylor delivered a superb version on his landmark “Angel Of The Presence” album. The Opt Trio certainly did Swallow’s tune justice with memorable solos by both Golubev and Law. The trio then went straight into a hugely inventive arrangement of the standard “Autumn Leaves”, which even Law described as “weird”. Be that as it may the trio still breathed fresh life into the old chestnut with an outstanding solo from Golubev being matched by both Law and Sirkis as the trio closed the first half to a great reception from an attentive and appreciative audience. 

Having described his trio’s version of “Autumn Leaves” as “weird” Law’s view of fellow pianist Jason Rebello’s arrangement of Cole Porter’s “I Love You” was “strange”. Law and Rebello had once worked together as part of a two piano project but this trio version incorporated lengthy solos from Law and Golubev before building up to something of a “big finish” courtesy of Sirkis’ dynamic drum breaks.

Sting’s “Fields Of Gold” was the first tune of the night to be drawn from the pop repertoire. One of Mr. Sumner’s strongest melodies was given an attractive arrangement featuring the rich, deep purr of Golubev’s bass.

Kenny Wheeler’s modern standard “Everybody’s Song But My Own” (another favourite of John Taylor’s) was just delightful with Sirkis exhibiting an exquisite touch on the cymbals.

The trio’s fourth tune of this set became the subject of some debate. Law had stopped announcing tunes by now and later couldn’t remember exactly what had been played. So correct me if you were there and know differently but I reckon it was Nick Drake’s “Way To Blue”, which appears on the unofficial “Opt” live album. Law and co. gave the piece a lovely, stately reading but with enough of an enquiring, improvisatory spirit to keep it interesting. Drake is something of a Mehldau favourite too and his fragile but melodic songs have become increasingly popular with piano improvisers in recent years. His wispy but memorable melodies allow plenty of space for creative interpretation.

Miles Davis’ classic “So What” from the immortal “Kind Of Blue” album also proved to be fertile ground for Law and his colleagues with each member of the trio making a strong solo contribution.
Law himself was particularly animated, his increasingly feverish soloing demonstrating that he was very much enjoying himself.

The second set closed with an inspired take on the standard “The Way You Look Tonight” which drew a tremendous response from the crowd. If the audience was smaller in number than that at the Sarah Gillespie/Gilad Atzmon gig the previous month the enthusiasm was, if anything greater, with several members of the audience getting to their feet to signal their approval, not a common sight outside of London or on the summer festival circuit. Among these were Allan Dickie and Laurie Grey of the Shrewsbury Jazz Network. It was good to see them both and highly unusual to meet someone who’d travelled further to get to a gig than me! (or the band, obviously).

Such a reaction couldn’t be ignored and the trio stepped back on to the stage to encore with a version of Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way” with Law himself signing off in style.

This was the second piano trio I’d seen in the course of a few days following the Trichotomy gig at Café Jazz in Cardiff the previous Thursday and it was interesting to make comparisons. Although one gig focused entirely on original material and the other almost exclusively on standards I found both approaches equally valid. The key element in both performances was the level of interaction between the musicians and both groups scored highly in this respect.

I’d urge all fans of contemporary jazz piano to check out John Law’s playing, whether in his Art Of Sound or Opt incarnations or even solo. He is an intelligent, articulate musician, originally classically trained and with great technical ability. The unofficial “Opt” live album, which includes much of tonight’s material is a most enjoyable listen and deserves to be more widely available.

I do hope BMJ’s Mike Skilton can bring himself to forgive me but I’ve docked half a star for the unavailability of an acoustic piano. Having said that the star system is pretty arbitrary and this was still an excellent evening of quality contemporary jazz. 

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