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Nathaniel Facey

Nathaniel Facey with the Chris Gilligan Trio, Kings Arms, Abergavenny, 25/04/2010

Photography: Tim Dickeson

by Ian Mann

April 27, 2010


An inspired guest soloist and a promising young rhythm section in a standards programme that sounded fresh and exciting despite the age of the material.

Alto saxophonist Nathaniel Facey is best known for his work with the award winning band Empirical, a group of brilliant young jazz musicians who combine a thoroughly contemporary approach with a deep seated love of the jazz tradition. Their latest album “Out ‘N’ In” salutes the genius of the late, great Eric Dolphy whilst simultaneously updating Dolphy’s music for our times in a series of excellent original compositions inspired by Dolphy’s methods.

Born in London in 1983 of Jamaican parents Facey is a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music and has played with an impressive array of musicians including Courtney Pine, Billy Jenkins and The Jazz Jamaica All Stars. A couple of nights before his appearance at Abergavenny he was seen on TV as a member of ex Specials leader Jerry Dammers’ Spatial AKA Orchestra on BBC 2’s “Later With Jools Holland” programme.

Facey may be a versatile musician but it’s his love of the tradition (plus an element of economic necessity I suspect) that leads him to perform “guest soloist plus local rhythm section” gigs like tonight’s. Certainly Black Mountain Jazz were fortunate to attract another soloist of this calibre so soon after Mornington Lockett’s appearance at the club and once again young Cardiff based pianist Chris Gilligan’s trio rose to the occasion with some sterling work in support of their illustrious guest.

Facey is no stranger to this part of the world having toured locally before supported by a trio led by drummer John Gibbon. He has also worked with Gilligan previously and it didn’t take long for Facey and the trio to build up a rapport in a programme consisting, not surprisingly, entirely of jazz standards and well known pieces from the bebop area.

A rather wooden version of Jerome Kern’s “All The Things You Are” opened the evening with solos coming from Facey, Gilligan and bassist Chris Hyson. This was the sound of a band testing each other out and getting to know each other. However they hit the ground running with Thelonious Monk’s bop masterpiece “In Walked Bud” and never looked back. Facey, immaculately dressed in suit and tie took the first solo , followed by Gilligan as the quartet fairly rattled through Monk’s typically slippery tune. The dapper saxophonist then traded fours with Gilligan and drummer Gethin Jones, the latter clearly enjoying a series of scintillating drum breaks.

A passage of solo saxophone introduced “I Remember You” before the group went into saxophone trio mode with the addition of Hyson’s agile bass and with Jones generating a surprising degree of power by the use of brushes alone. Gilligan finally entered proceedings to first solo extensively and then to trade phrases with Facey. Although sitting out for long periods over the course of the evening in order to give Facey his head Gilligan’s performance was nonetheless extremely impressive. His piano was more audible than it had been at the Lockett gig and Gilligan responded with some highly imaginative and entertaining solos as well as providing a good foil for Facey. 

The quartet ended the first set with their best performance of the evening to date. A multi faceted “Body And Soul” opened with another solo sax intro, Facey’s playing breathy and subtly blues inflected. He then duetted with Gilligan’s languid piano before Hyson’s deeply resonant bass and Jones’ brushed drums were added to the mix. The solos flowed seamlessly into each other; Facey to Gilligan to Hyson then back to Facey again. There was no applause mid tune as a rapt audience didn’t wish to disturb the mood of this beautiful ballad performance. At one point the group dropped out leaving space for another solo saxophone interlude. Even without a mic, as he was all evening, Facey still had ample power to comfortably fill the room with his pure alto sound. The trio came back in for the coda thus ending what had been, on the whole, an excellent opening set.

The band were clearly in the groove and the second set was to be even better.They opened with a composition by Charlie Parker, an obvious and audible influence on Facey throughout. Variously known as “Big Foot” or “Driftin’ On A Reed” the piece began with an opening salvo of pure bebop from Facey’s sax before moving on to a Monkish piano solo from Gilligan. Facey then returned with his best solo of the night thus far, an outpouring of garrulous Parker inspired alto backed by busy bass and drums. Hyson then took over the solo duties before Facey gave the nod to Jones for his first solo of the night. It was an exhilarating start to the second half.

Facey stated the theme to Wayne Shorter’s “Juju” before handing over to Gilligan for the first solo.
On the day of the London Marathon Facey then took over for an epic solo, his longest of the night , punctuated by occasional pauses for breath, or “feeding stations” as I preferred to think of them. After this he finally removed his jacket, which was probably a relief to his three companions who were probably feeling pretty scruffy by comparison.

The ballad “In Your Own Sweet Way” again featured Facey, Hyson and Jones in saxophone trio mode with Facey soloing before finally handing over to Gilligan. A meditative version of John Coltrane’s “Central Park West” retained an air of lyricism, particularly in Gilligan’s piano solo. In the main though this was a tour de force for Facey who again played unaccompanied for a while. This was a particularly interesting choice of tune for me as I’d recently been listening to it in another form on the French saxophonist Raphael Imbert’s excellent “N_Y Project” album.

Next the group stormed through Charlie Parker’s bop classic “Ornithology” with Facey delivering some of his most ferocious playing of the evening. We also heard from Gilligan and witnessed a thrilling exchange of fours and eights between alto, piano and drums culminating in an exciting solo from Jones. 

Coltrane’s “Equinox” kept the pot boiling with Facey’s brooding alto intro followed by solos from Gilligan and Hyson, the bassist’s solo being the springboard for another excursion into saxophone trio territory culminating in the most “out” playing of the night.

An enthusiastic audience weren’t going to let them go that easily and BMJ chairman Mike Skilton coaxed them back to the stand for an encore of Ray Noble’s “Cherokee”. Gilligan introduced this at the piano and took the first solo, followed by Facey in fiery dialogue with Gethin Jones. Later the saxophonist provided the punctuation as Hyson and Jones meshed together. 

It had been yet another excellent evening at BMJ. After a shaky start the trio quickly found their feet and delivered- particularly in a lengthy, value for money second half. The quartet were clearly enjoying themselves by then and their enthusiasm quickly communicated itself to the audience.

Facey is an assured and confident performer who speaks well between tunes and plays with an effortless grace that makes complex musical ideas sound easy. So often these kind of gigs can sound tired and predictable with the musicians delivering the solos by rote. Despite the familiarity of the material this didn’t apply tonight as Facey and his colleagues bounced ideas off each other and took the music in some unexpected directions. Gilligan’s tastefulness and restraint helped a good deal with this process and it’s clear that this young trio is maturing into one of Wales’ finest rhythm sections. In Facey they found a leader who was prepared to push himself and to engage with them, the result being music that sounded fresh and exciting despite it’s vintage. Well done all round and still keeping things on a happy note I’m told that a healthy attendance ensured BMJ broke even on the night too.

I’m now looking forward to seeing Facey in a more cutting edge context when he plays with Empirical next weekend at Cheltenham Jazz Festival.

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