by Ian Mann
March 29, 2022
This was music that was rich in terms of colour, texture, rhythm and melody from a quintet representing summit meeting of contemporary British jazz talent.
Matt Ridley, The Antidote, Cheltenham Jazz Club, Irving Studio Theatre, Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, Glos. 28/03/2022.
Matt Ridley – double bass, Alex Hitchcock – tenor, alto & soprano saxophones, Ant Law – guitar, Ivo Neame – piano, Jon Scott – drums
In the summer of 2021 bassist and composer Matt Ridley released “The Antidote”, his third album as a leader. The title is a clear reference to the Covid pandemic and the virus even gets a mention in Ridley’s liner notes. Nevertheless the music was actually recorded in 2019 by a quintet featuring three of tonight’s performers, bassist Ridley, saxophonist Alex Hitchcock and guitarist Ant Law. The album also features the talents of Tom Hewson (piano, keyboards) and French born, London based drummer Marc Michel.
The Antidote has since become a band name and Ridley is currently with the group performing music from the new album. Tonight’s performance for Cheltenham Jazz Club saw two changes from the album line up with Jon Scott replacing Michel and Ivo Neame deputising at very short notice for a Covid stricken Tom Hewson. The late change in the piano chair led to a last minute rehearsal before the gig and it was to Neame’s credit that he fitted in brilliantly. That said tonight’s players have all worked together in each other’s bands and in a variety of permutations. This was very much a summit meeting of contemporary British jazz talent.
“The Antidote” album appeared on Ubuntu Music and followed two previous Ridley releases for Whirlwind Recordings, “Thymos” (2013) and “Metta” (2016). The Whirlwind releases feature the core quartet of Ridley, pianist John Turville, drummer George Hart and saxophonist Jason Yarde. Yarde guests on the first disc but had become a full time member of the group by the time of the second. All three of Ridley’s albums are reviewed elsewhere on this site.
Ridley’s playing first came to my attention back in 2009 when he and Scott performed with pianist Will Butterworth’s trio at Presteigne Assembly Rooms. He then moved on to work with the late, great pianist and composer Michael Garrick (1933-2011) and subsequently with the Lyric Ensemble, a group fronted by singer Nette Robinson and saxophonist Tony Woods dedicated to keeping the “poetry and jazz” aspect of Garrick’s music alive.
Ridley was also part of the MJQ Celebration quartet alongside pianist Barry Green, vibraphonist Jim Hart and drummer Steve Brown, a unit that paid homage to both the music of the MJQ and of Michael Garrick.
Ridley also records and tours internationally as part of a quartet led by pianist and composer Darius Brubeck, son of the jazz immortal Dave Brubeck. He has also been part of the Art Of Rhythm Trio, led by guitarist Ant Law and featuring drummer / percussionist Asaf Sirkis.
Others with whom Ridley has worked include saxophonists Tim Garland and the late Don Weller, pianists Nikki Iles and Kit Downes, vibraphonist Jim Hart, Ethio-jazz star Mulato Astatke and steel pan virtuoso Leon Foster Thomas.
Of the music to be heard on “The Antidote” album Ridley comments;
“This album represents my humble attempt at creating music that reconciles the differences between us all. Rather than create a ‘jazz album’, my intention has always been to bring together aspects of all the music and culture that I have experienced in my time on Planet Earth, while also respecting and honouring the Jazz Tradition”.
He acknowledges that music has the power to both divide and unite, stating;
“I sincerely hope this body of work offers as much for the seasoned jazz listener, as for the ‘uninitiated’. Something you could listen to while going about your daily routine, but also worthy of your full attention. Perhaps something that will encourage reflection, and realisation that we are not so different after all.”
In an interview with Selwyn Harris for Jazzwise Magazine he explained his choice of title;
“Partly the reason that I called it ‘The Antidote’ was to prove the jazz sceptics wrong. The people who say ‘jazz is all very competent but where’s the tune? Most jazz historically has got amazing melodies but in contemporary jazz there’s quite a lot of it where the melodies are maybe angular and not singable. I find myself scratching my head as well about those sort of tunes. I want to be inspired by the melody of the tune I’m playing and not just whether it’s a good vehicle for improvising on”.
Ridley is a highly versatile musician who has played both electric and acoustic bass across a variety of genres, and he harbours similar reservations about aspects of both classical and rock music, the lack of groove in the former, and the “posturing, modishness and dumbing down” of the latter. He is also sceptical about jazz-rock and also jazz-classical crossovers.
That said there are many musical elements coming into play within the music of The Antidote, with Ridley drawing inspiration from jazz, rock, folk and classical music. The album showcases his considerable facility as a composer, as well as a highly accomplished instrumentalist.
For a band with a rhythm section comprised of Ridley / Scott there was also a suitably cinematic element about the writing. This was music that was rich in terms of colour, texture, rhythm and melody.
Tonight’s performance in the intimate space of the Irving Studio Theatre at Cheltenham’s Everyman Theatre featured almost all of the material from the “Antidote” album (the only omission was the band’s arrangement of Wayne Shorter’s “Infant Eyes”) plus a couple of pieces from “The Antidote Reloaded”, a digital only EP recorded at the same time as the album. This features three pieces that didn’t make the final album cut, but that doesn’t imply that they are in any way inferior to the pieces that did, as tonight’s performances of two of these compositions demonstrated.
Tonight’s show commenced with “The Minotaur”, a tune from the “Antidote” album and a follow on from “The Labyrinth”, which appeared on Ridley’s previous album “Metta”. The “labyrinthine complexity” of the meters defines both titles and this performance was notable for both the tightness of the ensemble passages and the colourful interplay between the instruments. The first solo fell to newcomer Neame on the venue’s upright acoustic piano, who quickly reminded the audience that he is one of the most inventive piano soloists in the country. The leader followed on double bass, his playing both powerful and highly dexterous. Law’s guitar solo exhibited a subtle rock influence and saw him judiciously deploying a range of pedal generated effects. Hitchcock’s tenor sax frequently assumed the melodic lead and although he did not feature as a soloist his playing was often at the heart of the music. As the piece moved towards a close Scott was featured at the drum kit.
From the “Antidote Reloaded” EP “Venasque” embraced a more conventional jazz feel. The title of the piece is derived from a village in Provence where Ridley’s sometime employer, pianist Darius Brubeck, has a holiday home. Written along the lines of a standard this was to feature a dazzling piano solo from Neame and an equally virtuosic set of exchanges between Hitchcock on tenor and Law on guitar.
“Thalo Blue” takes its name from a colour mentioned in a Bob Ross painting show that was being aired on the hospital TV when Ridley’s first child was being born. Its composer describes the piece as being “euphoric, symphonic rock meets twisted odd-time groove in a through composed odyssey”. It began here in atmospheric fashion with the sounds of bowed bass, cymbal shimmers and ethereal guitar FX. Law’s subsequent guitar motif continued to remind me of ‘Canterbury’ style prog rock before Hitchcock stretched out powerfully on tenor, underscored by Law’s guitar and the solid grooves of Ridley and Scott. Neame just sat back on the piano stool for a while, taking it all in and obviously enjoying it, until given the heads up to deliver his own bravura solo. This was music of symphonic drama and grandeur, with Ridley’s writing making effective use of contrast and dynamics as the piece ended in the same atmospheric manner as it had begun, with Ridley again making effective use of the bow.
The title of “Yardeville” paid homage to Ridley’s two former bandmates saxophonist Jason Yarde and pianist John Turville. It was written when both were members of Ridley’s band and was subsequently performed, but not recorded, by them. It features a “canonical melody”, one of Ridley’s most lyrical and memorable, the theme stated here by Hitchcock on soprano sax. The leader was the first to solo, his melodic pizzicato double bass solo sensitively supported by Scott’s delicate brush work and Law’s softly strummed ‘acoustic’ guitar. Law was subsequently to stretch out more forcefully and electrically, followed by Hitchcock on sinuous soprano.
The first half concluded with the appropriately named “Ebb and Flow”, introduced by a passage of rippling unaccompanied piano arpeggios from Neame, with Ridley subsequently joining to add a beguiling melody on cello like bowed bass. Hitchcock took over the melody on tenor as Ridley put down the bow to solo in pizzicato fashion. As the music gathered momentum more forceful solos were to come from Law on guitar and the fiendishly inventive Neame at the piano with Hitchcock taking over in the closing stages.
This had been an opening set of complex, but intrinsically melodic, music skilfully performed by a stellar quintet. The second half, which was centred around the four part suite that graces the “Antidote” album, was, if anything even better.
Introducing the “Suite” Ridley explained that it was inspired by both the classical music tradition and by 1990s rock. Ridley’s inspiration to compose a four part work came from his recent classical studies, which saw him complete a degree level diploma in classical double bass in 2017. His suite is based on the sonata form, which typically features four movements, but the finished work is equally inspired by the rock music of his youth.
Ridley grew up in the 1990s and was first inspired to take up electric bass by Flea of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Other bands that he admires from that era include Manic Street Preachers, Pearl Jam and Radiohead. From his parents he inherited an ongoing love for The Beatles and all these influences, and more, find their way into “Suite”.
“See you on the other side” said Ridley as the band launched into the opening movement “Gautoma”, a piece described by its composer as “unashamed fusioneering, the first part of the suite takes no prisoners”. Ridley’s driving bass lines fuelled a piece that saw Law cranking up his amp to deliver a powerful solo that saw the guitarist bouncing ideas off a grinning Jon Scott. In addition to Ridley’s acknowledged influences I also got that Soft Machine / Canterbury vibe again. Law’s solo was followed by a similarly powerful solo from Hitchcock on tenor, the saxophonist also feeding off Ridley’s propulsive bass lines and Scott’s dynamic drumming.
A passage of unaccompanied double bass provided the link / bridge into the next section, “Stranger Things” a gentler, more lyrical piece that has been described by Ridley as being “spacey, trippy, hypnotic and alluring”. Not that it was any less captivating or powerful as the music gradually gathered momentum, progressing by way of solos from Law and Neame.
A loosely structured ‘free jazz’ episode instigated by bass and piano, and later involving tenor sax and drums, provided the segue into the third movement, “Adagio For The Falling Stars”, a piece that Ridley has described as a “poignant rock ballad”. Although it was recorded in 2019 Ridley has since dedicated this movement to all the musicians who lost their lives during 2020 due to Covid and other causes – names such as Wallace Roney and Lee Konitz come to mind, Lyle Mays and Jon Christensen too. The piece is suitably elegiac in mood, exhibits a suitably song like quality and features one of Ridley’s most arresting melodies. Here it was to act as the vehicle for Hitchcock’s majestic tenor sax soloing, his playing lithe and highly melodic.
The combination of Scott’s shimmering cymbals and Law’s eerie guitar FX formed the bridge into “Pt. IV Finale”, which unusually featured Hitchcock on alto sax. Although centred around an unusual 15/16 meter this was still an extremely melodic piece, albeit one that Ridley has described as delivering “musical fireworks”. Tonight the pyrotechnics came via the solos of Neame on piano and Law on FX drenched guitar.
The seamless performance of this twenty minute plus suite drew a highly enthusiastic response from the audience at the Irving Studio and the quintet remained on stage for what was effectively an encore. This was to be a performance of the tune “Giorgina Diabolo” from the “Antidote Reloaded” EP, a piece that featured Ridley moving between pizzicato and arco bass and Hitchcock on soprano sax. The combination of complex rhythms and dancing, darting soprano helped to give the piece something of a Middle Eastern feel with Hitchcock taking the first solo. This was followed by a dialogue between Neame on piano and Law on guitar, recalling the pianist’s short lived collaboration with Maciek Pysz. Bass and drums subsequently joined the equation before Hitchcock returned to restate the main theme on soprano. The performance concluded with a dynamic drum feature from the excellent Scott.
An excellent evening of music making then. Thanks to all the band members for speaking with me afterwards and to Gil Emery of Cheltenham Jazz Club for organising my press ticket.
I’ll be seeing Ivo Neame twice inside a week as he brings his own quartet to Clun Valley Jazz in Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire on April 2nd.
Meanwhile Jon Scott tells me that he’s a secured a high profile gig with the Manchester based trio GoGo Penguin, this representing something of a return to his Mancunian roots.
Thanks to Matt Ridley for providing me with a copy of the “MJQ Celebration” CD, released in 2013, but as he says it’s never too late for a review so I intend to take a look at this in due course.
But despite all this musical excellence the evening ended on a sad note as Peter Spencer of Cheltenham Jazz Club informed us of the tragically early death of Gloucestershire born vocalist Tina May (1961 – 2022) on March 26th. This was news that was genuinely upsetting and hard to take in. The Jazzmann has enjoyed her music for many years and I intend to publish a fuller obituary over the course of the next few days. In the context of this evening Tina’s name should be added to the list of dedicatees of “Adagio For The Fallen Stars”. R.I.P. Tina.
On a brighter note music fans can enjoy future performances by Matt Ridley and The Antidote at;
09/04/2022 – The Hive Music & Media Centre, Shrewsbury
09/05/2022 – Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, Soho, London
Tickets available via https://www.mattridleybass.com/
Music available via https://mattridley.bandcamp.com/music
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