Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


The Convergence Quartet

Slow And Steady


by Ian Mann

June 11, 2013


The Convergence Quartet seem to strike just the right balance between the composed and the improvised, perfectly straddling the cusp between the accessible and the experimental.

The Convergence Quartet

“Slow And Steady”

(NoBusiness Records NBCD 53)

On May 21st 2013 I enjoyed two sets of blistering free improvisation by the international “supergroup” Tony-Joe Buck Lash comprising Tony Bevan on bass and soprano saxophones, Joe Morris on guitar, Tony Buck on drums and percussion and Dominic Lash on double bass. The gig took place at the Queens Head in Monmouth and the intimate setting made it possible to appreciate fully the details of Buck’s remarkable drumming -  it wasn’t always easy to see just what he was doing when I’d seen him with The Necks on a previous occasion. It was also a thrill to witness Bevan blowing hell out of his bass sax, in all my years of gig going I don’t think I’ve ever seen the giant of the saxophone family played before. Joe Morris’ guitar playing was little short of a revelation and Lash, a previous visitor to the venue with Alex Ward’s Predicate was superb at the bottom end, holding it all together either with or without the bow. Congratulations to Lyndon Owen for persuading such an illustrious line up to come to the rural Welsh Borders.

After the performance I spoke to Dominic Lash who kindly gave me a copy of this new live album by The Convergence Quartet for review. The group boosts another international line up with British musicians Lash and Alexander Hawkins (piano) joined by the American Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet and by Canadian drummer Harris Eisenstadt. The group was initially assembled in autumn 2006 for a series of British live appearances, one of which was documented on the album “Live In Oxford” (FMR Records 2007). The quartet struck up an instant rapport and although geographical separation has ensured that playing opportunities have been at a premium the quartet still managed to find their way into the studio to record 2010’s excellent “Song/Dance (Blues)” for the Clean Feed label.

Now comes Convergence Quartet’s third offering, a live recording made at London’s Vortex Jazz Club on November 13th 2011 as part of the London Jazz Festival. The album appears on the NoBusiness label based in Lithuania with Lash announcing himself as being delighted with how the collaboration between band and label has turned out. I’ll admit that NoBusiness is a new label but a glance at the website reveals that they are specialists in mainly European free jazz and improv with releases by Evan Parker, Mats Gustafsson, Barry Guy, William Parker and others. They produce both CDs and LPs and the catalogue includes both contemporary material and re-issues. It’s well worth a look.

The Convergence Quartet’s music differs from that of Tony-Joe Buck Lash in that it places a greater emphasis on composition with all four members bringing pieces to the group in all original programme. My one time co-writer Tim Owen (who now runs his own Dalston Sound blog reviewed a performance by the group at The Vortex in May 2009 and commented on how easily they bridge the gap between the avant garde and the mainstream, yes this is free jazz but it’s also sufficiently melodic and appealing to hold the attention of the “casual” listener. It’s certainly not as “difficult” as some of the music under the free jazz/improv banner but that doesn’t mean that it’s lacking in intellectual rigour. I’m with Tim on this one, Convergence Quartet is a band that I can readily enjoy with enough melodic content to hang on to whilst still appreciating the exploratory qualities of the music. I’ll admit that some of the more extreme examples of the free and improv canon do sometimes rather frighten me off. 

The performs begins with the Hawkins composition “assemble/melancholy”, a typically enigmatic Hawkins title. The piece begins in abstract fashion, presumably representing the “assemble” part of the title with arco bass rumblings and the occasional interior piano scrape. This develops into a kind of four way discussion centred on the dialogue between Bynum and Hawkins, and a discussion is what it is, animated and intelligent musical conversation that never descends into mere screaming at one another (a problem with rather too much free jazz and improv I find ).

Eistenstadt is a band leader in his own right with a large and impressive back catalogue that includes his acclaimed Canada Day quintet and octet. He begins his piece “Third Convergence” at the drums his colourful polyrhythms artfully punctuated by the rest of the group, yes he’s the featured soloist but that sense of group interaction is always present. Following the percussive fireworks of the introduction the piece abruptly shifts shape to embrace an unexpected mournful lyricism. There’s an almost ECM like sense of space about Bynum’s cornet whispers, Hawkins’ spacious chording and Eisenstadt’s delicately brushed drums. But this is a band that likes to keep listeners on their toes and they soon shade off into something more abstract and assertive before returning to the lyrical mood with a dialogue of fragile beauty between Bynum and Hawkins. Both are wonderfully versatile players as they prove in the next section as the quartet quickly accelerate into full on mode with Bynum’s cornet whinnying impatiently as Hawkins plays jagged block chords with Eistenstadt and Lash providing suitably energetic support. The closing stages mark a return to the impressionistic with Eisenstadt’s eerie cymbal scrapes a distinctive feature. Tim wrote of the band being “impressionistic and fragmented in one piece then propulsive and boisterous in the next”. Here they seem to achieve all of this in the course of a single tune.

Lash’s sturdily plucked bass opens Bynum’s “Remember Raoul” forming the bedrock for the composer’s mournful, muted cornet meditations. Hawkins busily probing piano fills in the spaces between Bynum’s long, melancholy lines and the fluid rhythms of Lash and Eisenstadt. Eventually the pianist is almost left on his own as the piece segues into Lash’s “Piano Part Two”.It’s almost as much a feature for Lash’s remarkable arco bass playing as for the instrument of the title. There are also some extraordinary, almost animalistic sounds from Bynum on the cornet in a piece that simultaneously charms and unsettles. There’s a chilling beauty about this section despite the disturbing nature of the some of the sounds generated by certain members of the quartet.
I have to say that I’m hugely impressed by Bynum’s playing throughout the album on an instrument that is rarely heard in jazz circles these days. He brings something of Kenny Wheeler’s mellifluous elegance to the instrument but is also prepared to toy with certain elements of the avant garde sometimes recalling the Scandinavian trumpet school of Henriksen and Molvaer but also evoking contemporary American trumpet experimenters such as Peter Evans and Nate Woolley. It’s perhaps no coincidence that he’s worked extensively with Anthony Braxton in recent years.

“equals/understand (totem)” just has to be a Hawkins title. The piece is quirky and playful with whinnying cornet and off kilter drumming plus typically idiosyncratic Hawkins pianistics. One minute his jagged runs are reminiscent of Cecil Taylor, Myra Melford or Keith Tippett, the next he’s playing something almost straightahead. It’s all in here.

The Lash composed “Oat Roe + Three by Three”  opens with an impressionistic free jazz exchange between Hawkins and Bynum , the cornet player again producing some extraordinary sounds from his instrument. Eisenstadt’s mallet rumbles add to the brooding atmosphere as the piece quietly unfolds. The composer actually appears to play a very minimal role in the proceedings.

By way of contrast Lash’s “The Taff End” is positively jaunty with a scintillating solo from Hawkins plus an equally engaging statement from Hawkins full of vocalised slurs and smears. Lash affords himself an extended solo bass feature before first Eisenstadt and then the rest of the group eventually usher us back to the theme.

The set closes with Eisenstadt’s title track which gradually unfolds in the manner suggested by the title. Hawkins’ gentle piano arpeggios underpin Bynum’s dolorous sounding cornet as the composer provides marvellously understated brushed accompaniment. It’s brief and pithy and its way very beautiful, the kind of subdued cameo that bands often save as an encore. Although this is a live recording the applause has been edited out so it’s not possible to be certain that was actually the case.

For this listener Convergence Quartet seem to strike just the right balance between the composed and the improvised, perfectly straddling the cusp between the accessible and the experimental. Each track is a journey but these are excursions that never seem to lose sight of their destination despite the absorbing diversions along the way. The playing is excellent throughout, Hawkins is a highly distinctive pianist with a well developed personal style and Bynum is little short of a revelation. Meanwhile Lash and Eistenstadt are sympathetic, superbly reactive partners who do all that is required of them - this is a genuine four way musical discussion - but inevitably it’s the melody instruments that draw most of the listener’s attention. On the evidence of this recording (plus their previous excellent output) it would seem that this long running, if intermittent, Trans-Atlantic ensemble still has much more to offer. 

blog comments powered by Disqus