by Ian Mann
May 30, 2013
A welcome return to action from two bands that have been off the scene for far too long.
Basquiat Strings / Oriole, Studio Theatre, Warwick Arts Centre, 25/05/2013
This double bill of F-ire Collective artists marked a welcome return to action for two bands who were particular favourites of mine around five,six or even seven years ago. Basquiat Strings’ début recording, released in 2006, was a Mercury Music Prize nomination whilst Oriole’s magnificent second album “Migration”, also 2006, was one of the very few records to gain a coveted Jazzmann five star award.
Oriole’s music is a fascinating hybrid of jazz, folk and Latin influences and the hiatus in their career was the direct result of their guitarist and composer Jonny Phillips re-locating to Cadiz for three and a half years to fully immerse himself in Spanish music and culture. Now ensconced in London once more Phillips marked his return to the UK scene in 2012 with the release of “Every New Day”, the third Oriole album and a worthy and welcome addition to the group’s impressive catalogue.
Basquiat Strings seem to have been away for a long time too. A second album featuring the original line up of leader, composer and cellist Ben Davis, violinists Emma Smith and Vicky Fifield, viola player Jenny May Logan plus the rhythm team of Richard Price (double bass) and Seb Rochford (drums) was recorded in 2009 but is only now seeing the light of day. Like its predecessor it’s an impressive piece of work and I’ll be taking a look at the album in due course.
In the meantime Davis has re-invented the group, abandoning the “string quartet plus rhythm” format and applying a looser definition of the word “strings” with the recruitment of the Scottish guitarist Graeme Stephen alongside Rochford and new bassist Fred Thomas. Tonight’s show suggested that the change of line up will serve to lead the group in a different, more folk orientated direction but still with elements of the jazz, classical and avant garde music worlds very much in place.
None of tonight’s material appears on either of the group’s recordings and was presumably written specifically for the current line up. Opener “The Muffin Man” began with dark, sonorous double bass before opening up to embrace snatches of folk melody and a dazzling solo from Stephen on semi acoustic guitar, his agile picking shadowed by Rochford’s subtle but equally nimble hand drumming. Thomas’ solo bass feature, which included dramatic Flamenco style strumming was thoroughly riveting as the new Basquiat line up got off to a terrific start.
Next came a segue of two totally contrasting pieces. The brief but lyrical “Sweet Corn” featured haunting cello and delicately brushed drums with the following “Arse Over Elbow” adopting a spikier, more animated tone more in keeping with the coarseness of the title. Here Davis’ bow struck rather than caressed the strings and he also played pizzicato as the group increasingly deployed extended techniques with solos coming from Stephen, Davis and Thomas. The piece ended with the grainy sound of contemporaneously bowed cello and double bass.
As its title might suggest “Monkish Mood” was an often playful Davis extemporisation of Thelonious Monk’s composition “Monk’s Mood” with a features for the leader’s cello and an intriguing dialogue between guitar and bass. At times a wilful dissonance edged the music towards the avant garde with Thomas’ vocal exhortations adding to the general air of weirdness. Stephens’ closing solo, an impressive display of rapid fire picking and chording ended the piece on an upbeat note.
The buoyant mood was continued into the final number, an afrobeat style piece dedicated to Davis’ young son. The words “afrobeat” and “strings” may seem mutually exclusive but in the hands of Basquiat strings plucked cello, acoustic guitar, double bass and drums meshed into an uplifting and often hypnotic meld of interlocking rhythms and patterns with Rochford again deploying the hand drumming technique. The piece saw Basquiat Strings moving even further away from the world of classical music and fully embracing the “rhythmic expression” of the F-ire acronym and ethos. Having said that both of the group’s recordings are surprisingly rhythmic and unexpectedly earthy.
This brief look at the new look Basquiat Strings suggested that there’s plenty of promise in the new line up and in these straitened times the scaled back four piece line up is probably more economical to run too. Let’s hope that the new unit remains musically active on a regular basis and gets the opportunity to record this fresh material.
Basquiat Strings and Oriole have always had overlapping personnel with Davis and Rochford long term members of both groups. They returned to the stage as part of an Oriole line up featuring leader Phillips on guitar plus two other regulars in the shapes of tenor saxophonist Idris Rahman and pianist Nick Ramm. New member Gili Lopez completed the group taking over on electric bass from previous incumbent Ruth Goller. The group’s albums also feature percussionist Adriano Adewale and saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, both absent tonight but with Laubrock now resident in New York this hardly came as a surprise.
The six piece Oriole played a set drawn entirely from their most recent album, although many of the tunes have been in their live set since the “Migration” days. Phillips is a skilled composer who writes with considerable melodic flair and with a purist’s eye for rhythmic detail. His colleagues are superb interpreters of his highly accessible material, Oriole have some great tunes and players with the necessary skills to get the best out of them. The blend of guitar, cello and tenor sax is pretty much unique and allows for some fascinating ensemble colours and textures.
Cello and piano introduced “Levante”, also the album opener, with the rich timbres of cello and tenor sax making distinctive contributions to the broad ensemble sound palette. Davis provided a typically fluent cello solo with Phillips following him on guitar, the latter’s sojourn in Cadiz has ensured that his playing is now even more profoundly “Spanish” than ever. In previous incarnations of the band Phillips was largely content to function as part of the ensemble. His brilliant solo here suggested a new maturity and confidence as he merged the influences of Flamenco and Wes Montgomery.
Many of Phillips’ tune titles, such as the following “Mountain Flower”, evoke strong visual images and there’s a decidedly cinematic quality about much of Oriole’s music. Phillips’ pure toned guitar introduced the piece, subsequently joined by Davis’ plucked cello before Rahman stated the theme on tenor sax. Lopez took the first solo on electric bass followed by Rahman on tenor. Fluent but passionate Rahman provided the grit in the Oriole oyster as he adopted a pugnacious crouch to deliver his often powerful sax lines. The piece ended with a feature for the perennially popular Rochford whose hand drumming delighted the small but attentive audience.
“Medem” and “Temba”, which follow each other on the album, were delivered as a segue with the impressionistic “Medem” a vehicle for the lyricism of Ramm and Davis. A free passage featuring interior piano tinkling and Rochford’s cymbal scrapes provided a bridge into the celebratory 3/4 samba “Temba” with Ramm and Rahman the principal soloists as the music gathered a joyous momentum. Incidentally the pieces are named after Spanish film director Julio Medem and Sherpa Temba, the youngest person to climb Mount Everest.
Oriole concluded with another tune inspired by strong visual images, this time the landscapes of Phillips’ beloved Southern Europe. A lovely folk flavoured waltz the piece featured the leader’s guitar alongside Davis’ cello but with Rahman the featured soloist, the saxophonist again adding a welcome dash of earthiness to the music.
Overall this was an enjoyable evening of music from two bands who have been off the scene for far too long. Having said that the “double bill” format didn’t serve either group particularly well, both were just hitting their stride when they were compelled to stop. The size of the audience, only around thirty or forty or so in a hall with a capacity of one hundred and eighty, also prevented the evening becoming an “event”. Those that were there were attentive and appreciative but something of the frisson that helps to generate a truly memorable live performance was missing. Still it’s good to see that these two excellent acts are up and running once more, let’s hope that UK jazz public will continue to support them but in rather greater numbers than tonight. This was the last date of a short UK tour, hopefully the other dates were better attended althogh to be fair to the people of Coventry a Spring Jazz Festival was going on elsewhere in the city which may have affected the turn out.
My thanks to Jonny Phillips for putting my wife and I on the guest list for this event and for taking the time to talk with us afterwards.
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