by Ian Mann
May 25, 2011
An excellent evening of music superbly played by a confident young band. Expect to hear a lot more from the John Martin Quartet.
John Martin Quartet
Dempsey’s, Cardiff, 24/05/2011
For me, “Dawning”, the début album by this fine young quartet led by the saxophonist and composer John Martin has been one of 2011’s most pleasing new discoveries. Released on the F-ire Presents imprint the album is reviewed elsewhere on this site. It’s a remarkably mature first album featuring a collection of first rate tunes, all written by Martin, plus top quality musicianship and superior production values.
At the time of writing the quartet is just coming to the end of a successful Jazz Services supported UK tour to promote the new record. Martin told me that the tour has gone as well as he could have wished with Birmingham and London particular highlights. The Rush Hour Blues show in Birmingham drew a large and appreciative crowd with the quartet enjoying a record amount of CD sales. Martin felt that the London show, at POSK, represented a creative peak in terms of the band’s playing of the album material.
The Cardiff gig may not have reached quite such heights but it was still mightily impressive with the young group comprehensively demonstrating that they can cut it in a live context. An appreciative, listening Dempsey’s crowd gave them a warm reception as they played two sets comprised of all the tunes from the album plus a couple of imaginative arrangements of jazz standards.
Martin’s tunes are distinguished by his love of melody and have the knack of immediately engaging the listener’s attention. There’s an underlying lyricism to much of his music but simultaneously enough compositional rigour to keep things consistently interesting. It’s an approach that has almost certainly won the quartet a lot of new friends, firstly via the album and now through the quality of their live performances. At Cardiff Martin (tenor and soprano saxophones), Jonjo Grisdale (piano), Tim Fairhall (double bass) and Andy Ball (drums) played with the assurance of seasoned professionals, their confidence doubtless buoyed by the success of the album and tour. This was music that sounded thoroughly played in.
The quartet began with album opener “I Wish”, a tune that built from lyrical beginnings to something more assertive and expansive. The lyricism of Grisdale’s piano and the delightful small details of Ball’s drumming (including the use of bells and shakers) distinguished the first half of the tune. Later Martin’s tenor solo transported the tune somewhere else as he stretched out with a remarkably mature fluency.
Martin is influenced by world music forms and spent some time playing with the afro band Zongo. The tune “Looking Up” was inspired by this period but not obviously so. Martin switched to soprano here, beginning the piece unaccompanied and displaying an astonishing purity of tone during his subsequent solo. Grisdale followed him, using Fairhall’s supple bass undertow as the springboard for a sparkling piano solo.
“All Good Things” was inspired by the music of the always quizzical Kenny Wheeler, what better role model for the aspiring young jazz musician? Essentially a ballad, Martin’s tune is a warm tribute to the venerable trumpeter and composer, introduced here by Grisdale’s solo piano and featuring the first of several excellent solos from Fairhall. The bassist gets relatively little opportunity to shine on the album but tonight’s show featured him more extensively. His solos were always absorbing and inventive but never lost sight of the melody and seemed to be propelled by a kind of inner logic. His springy tone and excellent technique made for absorbing listening. Bass solos can sometimes be a bit of a bore but Fairhall’s dexterity and imagination ensured that this wasn’t to be the case here. Martin’s tenor subsequently added an element of the delicately probing qualities that distinguish Wheeler’s best music.
Fairhall’s bass introduced the standard “If I Should Leave You” and he later returned as a soloist following lengthy excursions by Martin on tenor and an inspired Grisdale on piano.
The quartet closed the first set with “Dawning” itself, the lengthiest piece on the album and one of Martin’s most ambitious compositions. Episodic in nature the tune is divided into two distinct sections and in this context produced gloriously unfettered soloing from Grisdale on piano and Martin on soprano. Head tilted back Martin blew with confidence and conviction in a style reminiscent of Dave Liebman or even the late John Coltrane as Grisdale reached under the lid of the piano to pluck at the strings.
The second set maintained the high standards that the quartet had set before the break. The catchy “Moving On” incorporated gospel,afro and even latin grooves with Grisdale’s effusive piano solo bookended by Martin’s two outings on tenor.
Sam Rivers’ tune “Beatrice” has become something of a modern day standard and is an increasingly popular vehicle for contemporary young improvisers. The quartet’s enjoyable arrangement framed solos from Martin on tenor, the increasingly exuberant Grisdale on piano and Fairhall at the bass.
In a live context the title of “Quiet Song” seemed well chosen with the quartet focussing on the more lyrical aspects of their playing with solos from Martin on feathery soprano, Fairhall bringing a real singing quality to the bass, and finally a reflective Grisdale at the piano. Ball’s delicately brushed drums offered sympathetic support to each soloist in turn.
One of the pieces on the record that has drawn the most praise is the tricky 11/4 blues “Swagger”. The band stormed into the tune here with Martin’s marathon tenor solo eventually giving way to a bravura bass feature from the excellent Fairhall. The piece comprises of three interlocking rhythmic parts which Martin describes as giving the tune “a kind of cocky swagger”. There was certainly plenty of that here, and an element of humour too, this was a band that were clearly enjoying themselves. The piece climaxed with a feature for drummer Andy Ball, hitherto somewhat of an unsung hero, as he colourfully hammered away, underpinned by Grisdale’s insistent piano figure. This earned a tremendous reception from the Cardiff crowd and it would perhaps have been better to have adjusted the set list and concluded the show with this. Instead the evening ended on a quiet note with the folk tinged melody of “It Is How It Is” which also concludes the album. It’s a lovely tune, elegiac yet quirky, with Martin on long lined tenor and with more of those lovely percussive details from Ball plus the added bonus here of a final solo from Fairhall. I know it’s common practice for concert encores to be quiet affairs but in the rather more down to earth atmosphere of Dempsey’s it might have been more appropriate to end with the bluster of “Swagger” and go out on a high.
This minor quibble aside it had been an excellent evening of music superbly played by a confident young band. Martin’s assured and lucid announcements, delivered without the aid of a vocal mic, also added to the success of the evening.
The quality of the group’s performances on this tour should raise their profile (both individually and collectively) and the future looks bright for the John Martin Quartet. The album has been well received by the jazz media with airplay on both BBC’s Jazz Line Up and Jazz FM. The band are planning to record a new album in 2012 with Grisdale also bringing some tunes to the group’s repertoire. Expect to hear a lot more from this excellent young quartet.
Great to meet you yesterday Ian. Thanks for the lovely review!