by Ian Mann
February 02, 2015
Ian Mann enjoys the music of two ensembles featuring the drumming talents of Jeff Williams. He also looks at Mike Fletcher's new trio album "Vuelta" and at the free early evening show by Fred T Baker.
Mike Fletcher Trio / Jeff Williams Quintet, CBSO Centre, Birmingham, 30/01/2015.
The drummer and composer Jeff Williams seems to be the man of the moment on the Jazzmann just lately appearing on three recently reviewed albums. The US born, London based musician plays on bassist Olie Brice’s new quintet album “Immune To Clockwork” and is also the main composer on “Valence”, a live recording by a collaborative trio featuring British bassist Sam Lasserson and American alto saxophonist John O’Gallagher. Williams even cropped up in unusual guise on the new Troyka album “Ornithophobia” providing the news broadcast style voice-over on the track “Thopter”.
Tonight’s Jazzlines double bill at the CBSO Centre brought several of the above strands together in two ensembles, both of them featuring the drumming talents of Williams.
MIKE FLETCHER TRIO
First up was a trio led by the Birmingham based saxophonist and composer Mike Fletcher with a rhythm section comprised of Brice and Williams. Fletcher studied at Birmingham Conservatoire with Julian Siegel and others and has since travelled widely before settling back in the city. He runs the twelve piece Mike Fletcher Jazz Orchestra featuring leading jazz musicians from the Birmingham and London scenes plus the nonet Different Trane with its five piece brass section and twin double basses, the music inspired equally by Steve Reich and John Coltrane.
However Fletcher is most likely to be seen leading a small group, sometimes a quartet, like the one I saw at the 2011 Harmonic Festival, or more likely a trio. Fletcher, Brice and Conservatoire graduate Tymoteusz Jozwiak recorded the freely improvised album “Nick Of Time” for the Slam record label in 2014.
Fletcher’s new trio teams him with Brice and Williams and this line up has recorded a new album “Vuelta” , recently released on the Birmingham based Stoney Lane Records. Although Fletcher plays a variety of reeds his current trio finds him specialising on the rarely heard C melody saxophone, an instrument somewhere in size between the alto and the tenor. This trio uses Fletcher’s compositions as the starting point for their improvisations, the resultant music occupying the hinterland between composition and improvisation / structure and freedom that seems to represent the ideal territory for musicians such as Williams and Brice.
The project has been encouraged by Fletcher’s receipt of an ECHO Rising Stars award for 2014/15. Awarded by the European Concert Hall Organisation, an international body encouraging co-operation between the arts scenes across a variety of different countries. Fletcher and his trio will get the opportunity to perform at a series of prestigious concert halls across Europe including a showcase event at Birmingham Town Hall on Wednesday May 13th 2015.
And so to tonight’s performance, which was being filmed although I couldn’t say by whom or what for. The film crew were pretty unobtrusive and didn’t get in the way of the music which began with Brice’s bass introducing “Aire”, the opening track on the trio’s new album. Fletcher has spent a lot of time in Iberia, the album title “Vuelta” is Spanish for “return” and “Aire” was inspired by the light of the sun on the Spanish coast. The wispy, faintly Moorish melody was a vehicle for Fletcher’s coolly elegant, gently probing improvising above Williams’ trademark “polyrhytmic flow”, a consistently unfolding and fluid display of rhythmic invention yet with the drummer’s style never seeming to be busy or cluttered. He’s a master of playing in this chordless context as evidenced by the recent “Valence”.
A second piece, as yet unrecorded and currently going under the working title of “London” was more forceful and aggressive with deeply resonant bass and more sharply edged saxophone playing with Fletcher periodically squeezing a series of honks and squeaks out of his instrument. Meanwhile Brice’s bass solo constituted a compelling blend of impressive muscularity and great dexterity.
“A Dino” is a tune that has been in Fletcher’s repertoire for some time. Written as a tribute to the great Argentinian bandoneon player Dino Saluzzi I remember the saxophonist playing it on alto at Harmonic back in 2011. The version on “Vuelta” features Fletcher on flute but here he tackled it on the C melody, linking with Brice on the intro and contributing a typically subtle and gently exploratory solo later in the tune. Brice contributed another memorable solo, this time shadowed by Williams whose exquisite cymbal work with both mallets and brushes was a superlative reminder of his abilities as a colourist. Lovely.
Another tune that has been in the saxophonist’s locker for some time is “Fletcher’s Walk”, named after a thoroughfare in Birmingham that seems likely to fall victim to the developer’s wrecking ball at some time in the near future, Fletcher joking that his tribute might soon become a requiem. This was a more forceful piece, almost Colemanesque, featuring Brice’s elastic but propulsive bass and with Williams enjoying a series of colourful drum breaks.
“Her Grace” was Fletcher’s homage to the late Alice Coltrane, beginning with an atmospheric and emotive passage of unaccompanied saxophone, the reflective mood subsequently intensified by the addition of Brice’s sombre, almost funereal arco bass and Williams’ brushed cymbal shimmers. Still in pensive mood Fletcher entered into dialogue with Brice’s plucked bass as Williams offered drum commentary on the proceedings. In the closing stages the style shifted towards the kind of “spiritual jazz” purveyed by John and Alice Coltrane as Fletcher adopted a more declamatory tone on the sax.
The set concluded with “Perhaps Sing A Song”, the sly, quirky melody adding a subtle dash of humour to the proceedings. Brice’s earworm of a bass figure underpinned Fletcher’s solo, anchoring the piece as the saxophonist was given room to roam, his peregrinations superbly shadowed every step of the way by Williams.
This was an impressive performance by a very well balanced trio that augurs well for the year ahead and the upcoming ECHO performances. The album “Vuelta” is also well worth hearing and includes three further pieces not heard here, among them the abstract ballad “Home” a duet for saxophone and double bass. There’s also the the eight minute plus “In Memoriam” which features some of Fletcher’s most expansive playing plus a lengthy, but expertly constructed ,solo drum passage from Williams. The album closes with the three way discussion of “Savour”, garrulous at first but with a beautifully gentle coda.
JEFF WILLIAMS QUINTET
Dividing his time between New York and London Jeff Williams leads an ensemble on either side of the pond. The work of his “American” quartet consisting of John O’Gallagher, trumpeter Duane Eubanks and bassist John Hebert has been documented on two albums for the Whirlwind label, the studio recording “Another Time” and the live session “The Listener”.
Meanwhile Williams’ British quintet features some of the UK’s leading players in guitarist Phil Robson, rising tenor sax star Josh Arcoloeo, bassist Sam Lasserson and Troyka’s Kit Downes, tonight specialising on acoustic piano. Downes has effectively replaced alto saxophonist Finn Peters which has significantly altered the band’s sound and placed a great onus on the shoulders of Arcoleo, a challenge which he has risen to magnificently with confidence and aplomb. The Peters edition of the band recorded the live album “Concert In The Amazon” which appears on Williams’ own Willful Music imprint and it was this line up that I saw at the Green Note, Camden as part of the 2013 London Jazz Festival.
The presence of both guitar and piano ensures that the UK group sounds very different to the chordless American quartet. Although much of the repertoire is drawn from the two Whirlwind albums the pieces are played in much more “straight-ahead” fashion with Williams adapting his drumming style accordingly, his sound becoming more forceful, regular and dynamic.
A passage of solo piano from Downes introduced “New And Old”, a new piece dedicated to the memory of Williams’ father who sadly passed away in March 2014. In the quintet setting we heard more conventional jazz soloing than we had with the more consciously interactive Mike Fletcher Trio. Arcoleo, Robson and Downes all impressed individually before embarking on a series of thrilling exchanges fuelled by Williams’ increasingly volcanic drumming.
From “Another Time” the composition “Under The Radar” began with the gentle patter of Williams’ hand drums before developing in intensity via solos from Robson and Arcoleo, the young saxophonist’s worrying, whinnying tenor steadily building to a declamatory peak. By way of contrast came Downes’ gentle piano dialogue with Williams’ hand drums, the musical conversation underpinned by Lasserson’s anchoring bass as the music skirted “chamber jazz” territory.
A similar kind of elegance distinguished the ballad “Meeting A Stranger” which began with Arcoleo playing the melody over a backdrop of subtle guitar shadings and delicately brushed drums. Downes was at his most lyrical on a flowing acoustic piano solo which was followed by Lasserson on the bass, his playing often concentrated around the bridge of the instrument. Arcoleo’s tenor solo demonstrated his versatility and served to prove once more that he is one of the best young saxophonists to have emerged in the UK in recent years.
This lovely ballad performance segued into the choppier, spikier “Borderline”, a piece dating back to 1995 and Williams’ “Jazzblues” album. Arcoleo and Robson doubled up on the complex melody lines while Downes’ manic grin suggested that this was music that was tricky and challenging but still great fun to play. Lasserson’s bass temporarily assumed the lead as Williams chattered around him, a beguiling combination of hands on skins and sticks on rims before the music entered piano trio mood with the advent of a dazzling Downes solo. Finally Arcoleo’s tenor returned, his solo taking the music storming out.
There was more thrilling complexity with “Oddity”, a piece seemingly jointly inspired by classic bebop and Ornette Coleman, bookended by two Williams drum features and including buccaneering solos from Robson, Downes and Arcoleo. Robson favoured a clean, fluid guitar sound pretty much throughout tonight’s set, saving his more rock orientated leanings for his own group Partisans.
From “Another Time” the track “She Can’t Be A Spy” has been a staple of Williams’ live sets in the last few years. More impressive soloing here from Downes, Robson and Lasserson.
Unfortunately this was the last scheduled number of the evening. Double bills are attractive for the variety they provide but the downside is that bands often have to finish just when they’ve reached their peak. This set seemed to be over far too early but at least we got an encore of sorts with “Double Life”, a title that neatly encapsulates the drummer’s Atlantic hopping existence. Tonight the tune gave his British buddies the chance to sign off in style with Robson and Arcoleo doubling up on the theme prior to their individual solos with Downes and Lasserson swiftly following as Williams expertly steered the ship from the drum stool.
All in all an impressive night’s work from one of the jazz world’s top drummers in two very different contexts. Williams, born 1950 is a comparative veteran but is still a musician who is right on top of his game and his encouragement of young, emerging musicians is almost Blakey-esque. Readers are encouraged to check out the new Mike Fletcher Trio album, an excellent example of this aspect of his music making.
FRED T. BAKER TRIO
Prior to the double bill at the CBSO centre I had enjoyed the weekly early evening free jazz session in the Café Bar at Symphony Hall this week featuring a trio led by Fred T Baker. Perhaps best known as an electric bassist with Phil Miller’s In Cahoots, Geoff Eales’ Isorhythm and numerous other bands Baker is also a fine guitarist and tonight’s set featured both aspects of his playing. The Derbyshire based musician was joined by Matt Ratcliffe on one of the new generation Hammond organs complete with Leslie speaker cabinet and by Miles Levin at the drums.
Baker began on his beloved old Gibson electric on a lightly grooving Metheny-like piece appropriately titled “The Opener”, sharing the solos with Ratcliffe’s Hammond. The segue of “Mellow Mood” and “A Beautiful Feeling” with Baker on acoustic guitar then highlighted a gentler sound of the trio’s playing.
The set also included a series of solo guitar pieces from Baker’s album “Life Suite”, among them “End of the Line”, “Hymn Of Hope” and “Life Samba”. The first of these was dedicated to the memories of pianist Pete Saberton, drummer Tony Levin (father of Miles) and Baker’s frequent collaborator trumpeter Harry Beckett. Baker started out as a guitarist before taking up the bass and this was an impressive reminder of his ability on his first instrument.
Other items from “Life Suite” were given trio arrangements, among them “Recession Blues” featuring the trusty vintage Gibson that had belonged to Baker’s own father. The first set ended with the trio romping through the Ray Noble penned jazz standard “Cherokee”.
The flamenco influenced solo acoustic guitar piece “Spinal Trap” opened the second half before Baker switched to fretless electric bass for the rest of the set to demonstrate a more rock influenced side to his musical personality first with a solo feature liberally stuffed with quotes and then with the trio on an atmospheric piece that teamed Ratcliffe’s spacey, trippy sounding Hammond with Baker’s arsenal of electronic effects - including a vocalised effect reminiscent of those voice bags used by guitarists Joe Walah and Peter Frampton back in the 1970s.
“Procession” featured Baker and the trio romping through a whole grab bag of musical styles, soul jazz, funk and blues, even something of a calypso / reggae groove. Along the way we heard solos from Baker and Ratcliffe plus a feature for the crisply energetic drumming of Levin.
To close Baker revelled in mangling the music of Henry Mancini by putting it through the live looping process to produce monstrous, distorted guitar like sounds on his fretless bass as the trio concluded the afternoon’s proceedings on an energetic note. The crowd at a decidedly chilly Symphony Hall clearly loved it and gave the trio a great reception.
An impressive and enjoyable warm up for the delights to come.
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