by Ian Mann
April 26, 2016
Ian Mann enoys the music of Malija but sounds a note of warning regarding the future of Jazz in Wolverhampton.
Malija, Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton, 23/04/2016.
The trio Malija consists of saxophonist Mark Lockheart, pianist Liam Noble and bassist Jasper Hoiby. It’s one of those conflated group monikers, sourced from the first two letters of the given names of the three performers, it could just as well have been Jamali or Lijama.
But in many ways it’s appropriate that it’s Lockheart’s letters that come first for it was on his 2009 quintet album “In Deep” (Edition Records) that these three musicians first played together, quickly establishing a rapport that eventually led to the formation of this smaller unit. Malija’s début album “The Day I Had Everything” was released in late 2015, also on Edition Records, and was critically well received, earning four stars and a recommendation from the Jazzmann in the process. Although Malija is an extremely democratic and interactive group which shares writing duties around the band it’s Lockheart who contributed the largest number of compositions to the album and who acted as the spokesman at tonight’s performance.
In jazz terms Malija is something of a ‘supergroup’ as evidenced by the following individual biographies lifted directly from my review of the album;
As well as leading his own projects and acquiring a reputation as a brilliant jazz educator Lockheart is also a member of two of the most seminal UK groups of recent times, Loose Tubes and Polar Bear. He was also a co-founder of the eclectic and consistently engaging quartet Perfect Houseplants who recently performed a sell out reunion gig at the Vortex as part of the 2015 EFG London Jazz Festival.
Born in Denmark but now based in London Hoiby is most closely identified with his leadership Phronesis, the phenomenally successful Anglo-Scandinavian trio featuring pianist Ivo Neame and drummer Anton Eger. He has also performed with vibraphonist Jim Hart, vocalist Julia Biel and as a member of saxophonist Adam Waldmann’s Kairos 4tet. More recently he has formed a new quintet, Qualia, that features Lockheart on saxophones alongside trumpeter Laura Jurd, pianist Will Barry and drummer Corrie Dick.
The chameleon like Noble is less closely identified with specific bands than his two illustrious colleagues. A highly versatile performer he has recorded in a variety of instrumental configurations including two solo piano albums “Close You Eyes” (1994) and the more recent “A Room Somewhere” which was released in 2015 to great critical acclaim. Others with whom Noble has recorded include saxophonists Julian Siegel, Ingrid Laubrock, Chris Biscoe and Zhenya Strigalev, guitarist Phil Robson and drummer Tom Rainey. Noble also has a long established trio featuring bassist Dave Whitford and drummer Dave Wickins, this line up releasing the album “Brubeck” in 2009. Noble has also appeared on disc with Pigfoot, the band led by former Loose Tubes trumpeter Chris Batchelor. Yet to be documented on record is Noble’s superb Brother Face quintet featuring Batchelor, Whitford, Wickins and multi reed player Shabaka Hutchings. A highly busy musician and another acclaimed educator Noble has performed with many other jazz luminaries from both sides of the Atlantic in a variety of styles ranging from mainstream to free via the ‘punk trad’ of Pigfoot.
Malija’s music reflects the wide ranging influences and pedigree of its members as Lockheart explains;
“Malija is about many musical things, often styles and influences that have come from our many diverse musical experiences working and developing on London’s vibrant jazz scene. The melting pot of London’s multi-faceted music scenes is reflected in the compositions, to me this is London jazz music, distinct and different from the American sound. The London scene of the 80s and 90s had a big impact. I was gigging with reggae and African bands as well as recording with some of the London indie groups of the time - all these things influenced my music making”.
“‘The Day I Had Everything’ is a reference to the sheer excitement one has as a child getting up in the morning and not being able to decide what to do first – everything seems so shiny and new. The coming together of Malija was like this – the three of us bringing in our compositions and developing them into something tangible, then the sheer fun of exploring the music in the recording studio”.
The majority of tonight’s pieces were sourced from the album but this enterprising trio also took the opportunity of introducing a couple of new, as yet unrecorded, items into the repertoire. In the absence of a drummer Malija’s sound could reasonably be described as ‘chamber jazz’ but this is music that transcends mere ‘prettiness’ to incorporate the kind of harmonic, rhythmic and improvisatory muscle that one would expect from musicians of this calibre and sophistication. As my review of the album stated “this is emphatically chamber jazz with balls”. Hoiby’s bass playing combines power and muscularity with agility, fluency and dexterity while Noble’s left hand is a thing of wonder with regard to rhythmic and textural possibilities.
Tonight’s performance commenced with Noble’s tune “Wheels”, a piece that its composer has described as being “folksy – almost coming off in places”. Hoiby’s bass introduced the piece, combining with Noble’s use of dampened piano strings to create an impressive rhythmic impetus above which Lockheart’s dancing soprano sax sketched the folkish melody. The ongoing rhythmic dialogue between Noble and Hoiby was a delight throughout as Lockheart’s soprano continued to swoop and soar in joyously impish fashion.
Introducing his own tune “Almost A Tango” Lockheart described Malija as “a meeting of compositional minds”. Of the title he remarked “you’ll see what we mean later”. This was a piece that moved through several different phases and saw Lockheart switching to tenor and bookending the piece with fluent and authoritative solos. Elsewhere we heard a typically percussive piano solo from Noble and a passage of unaccompanied bass from Hoiby on a piece that its composer has described as “a tango that never stays quite regular enough”.
Hoiby’s “Wayne’s World” paid tribute to the great American saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter in a manner owing something to Shorter’s contemporary, questing style with a freely structured intro leading to an attractive melody featuring Lockheart’s breathy tenor as Hoiby variously deployed both arco and pizzicato techniques as part of the ongoing musical conservation. Later we heard an expansive and lyrical solo from the consistently impressive Noble as the composition continued to unfold.
Lockheart’s “The Pianist” was inspired by jazz giants Duke Ellington and Earl Hines but despite alluding to the music of both was still a convincing piece of contemporary jazz as Lockheart’s impassioned tenor soloing combined effectively with Noble’s chunky, percussive piano chording and Hoiby’s deep, woody, muscular bass.
The final item of the first set was unannounced but I suspect that it may have been Hoiby’s “Unknown” as Lockheart moved back to soprano, his initial statement of the melody doubled by Hioby’s bass. Hoiby’s dialogue with Noble on piano was followed by a brief solo bass interlude during which time Lockheart switched back to tenor to deliver a lengthy solo on the larger horn.
Set two commenced with Hoiby’s tune “Malija” - “we’ve discovered a town in Slovenia that’s got the same name” remarked Lockheart, “maybe we can get a gig there”. A tune written to express the trio’s combined spirits of empathy and exploration this featured a solo bass introduction plus Noble’s interior piano scrapings before Lockheart’s warm, breathy tenor emphasised the beauty of Hoiby’s simple but appealing melody. Similar qualities informed Lockheart’s own “One For Us” which featured a flowingly expansive solo from Noble, arguably his best of the night.
The next piece was an as yet untitled Lockheart composition designed to feature Hoiby’s abilities with the bow. Jasper doesn’t get to use the bow much with Phronesis and feigned embarrassment at having to showcase his arco capabilities, even going as far as to suggest that the tune title should be “No Pressure”. Needless to say Hoiby impressed hugely with a performance that saw him deploying both arco and pizzicato techniques as he duetted with Lockheart’s tenor against a backdrop of Noble’s piano arpeggios. Eerie bowed sounds and deep sonorities combined with a cello like richness before Hoiby put down the bow to accompany Noble’s piano solo.
Lockheart’s tune “Squared” was the first piece that the trio played together and incorporates what its composer has described as “a sort of bluegrass feel”. It’s not that obvious although the melody is one of those that sounds as if it’s been around for ever. Tonight’s version saw excellent solos from Noble and Hoiby plus some sparkling dialogue between the pair, all this complemented by the sound of Lockheart’s tenor.
Noble took the vocal mic to dedicate his tune “Mr Wrack” to his demonic former technical drawing teacher. This was a savagely quirky and fiercely rhythmic piece that saw Lockheart’s impassioned tenor taking flight above the intense rhythmic impetus generated by Noble and Hoiby.
The new tune “Pink Mile” concluded the evening with the trio building up another impressive head of steam with Hoiby’s vigorously plucked bass featuring strongly alongside Lockheart’s high register tenor and Noble’s piano.
There was much to enjoy about this performance, as one would expect from three musicians with so much individual and collective ability. Yet ultimately this was one of the least satisfying performances that I’ve attended at the Arena. I’ll admit that I sometimes missed the presence of a drum kit and the musical and visual stimulation that a drummer might have provided but ultimately the source of my dissatisfaction had little to do with either the musicians or the material – it was the disappointingly small attendance.
Malija should have been a perfect fit for the intimate environment of the 150 seat Arena, particularly with the estimable Peter Maxwell Dixon on the mixing desk, but tonight it was barely a third full with the attendance struggling to reach fifty, easily the poorest audience turnout that I’ve witnessed at this venue. As a result there was a distinct lack of atmosphere, something I thought I’d never say about the Arena, although to their credit the listeners that were there responded very positively to the trio. However as Martin Shreeve, the chairman of Jazz at Wolverhampton opined from the stage during the half time raffle audience figures of this size on a regular basis would soon see the Jazz at the Arena programme becoming unsustainable which would be a tragedy for jazz enthusiasts in Wolverhampton and the Midlands area in general.
Jazz at the Arena is currently coming towards the end of its third season and there does seem to have been something of a tailing off of audience numbers this year. In the case of this performance it may have been a case of familiarity breeding contempt with all of these musicians having visited the venue before with different line ups, including Hoiby’s highly popular Phronesis. Perhaps the drummer-less instrumental configuration put some listeners off, although that doesn’t compute with a sell out performance by the similarly drummer-less Quercus approximately twelve months ago. Malija did play in nearby Birmingham at the end of January and it may be that some fans had already seen them there. Cost may also have been a factor, although £15.00 is fairly standard these days for a band of this quality. Again this doesn’t square with the fact that £18.00 was charged for the visit of saxophonist Jean Toussaint’s Blakey Project, an event that drew one of the best attendances of this current season.
Whatever the reason it’s a worrying trend and I’d urge all jazz fans in the West Midlands area to get behind Jazz in Wolverhampton and help them to present a fourth successful season of Jazz at the Arena in 2016/17.
Founder Alison Vermee and her colleagues worked hard to get Jazz at the Arena off the ground. Don’t let it die.