by Ian Mann
October 21, 2013
A superb evening of music delivered by a refreshingly humble but totally brilliant band.
The Impossible Gentlemen, Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton, 20/10/2013.
The second date of the new Jazz at the Arena programme was another resounding success. Following on from the success of the inaugural sold out event featuring pianist Zoe Rahman and her quartet series co-ordinator Alison Vermee announced herself delighted at another full house for the appearance of The Impossible Gentlemen.
The Trans-Atlantic alliance that we have come to know collectively as The Impossible Gentlemen was originally convened in 2010 under the unwieldy moniker of Simcock /Walker /Swallow /Nussbaum. Conceived by Mancunian guitarist Mike Walker the new supergroup also featured featured British pianist Gwilym Simcock and the all American rhythm section of Steve Swallow (electric bass) and Adam Nussbaum drums. I caught the band on their first tour at the Taliesin Arts Centre in Swansea and was hugely impressed by their highly intelligent, melodic but muscular, brand of jazz fusion. It was also immediately apparent just how much these guys enjoyed making music together and thus what was probably intended as a one off project has developed into a regular working band with a devoted following. I’ve seen them several times now, twice at Swansea, once at Alison’s previous venue The Edge at Much Wenlock, and more recently at the 2013 Brecon Jazz Festival which saw Simcock and Walker joined by a rhythm section consisting of of bassist Steve Rodby and guest drummer Mark Walker (no relation), the latter best known as the percussionist with the group Oregon. Every show has been different and each has exhibited signs of continuing artistic development. Even more importantly each has represented terrific entertainment with strong compositions and stellar musicianship enhanced by the group’s relaxed and humorous presentation style, as well as being great players these guys look as if they’re having fun on stage.
Unusually for an Anglo-American collaboration the British guys are essentially the leaders. Walker and Simcock contributed the majority of the material to the group’s eponymous début album released on Basho Records in 2011. And what masterful tunes they were, although not written specifically the group the band brought the best out of what was obviously already very strong material. The album received a compelling amount of critical acclaim and also sold very well. A similar reception awaited the keenly anticipated follow up, “Internationally Recognised Aliens”, which appeared on Basho in the summer of 2013. This time round the album was produced by Steve Rodby, best known for his lengthy tenure with the Pat Metheny Group. Rodby also picked up his acoustic bass to double up with Swallow on a couple of pieces, subtly altering the Gents’ sound in the process. Following his appearance at Brecon Rodby is fulfilling the bassist’s role throughout the current tour as Swallow concentrates on his work as part of another Anglo-American collaboration, the trio featuring his partner pianist and composer Carla Bley and the British saxophonist Andy Sheppard.
Rodby’s muscular playing on double bass (as opposed to Swallow’s bass guitar) has made a difference to the band sound, at Wolverhampton they seemed to be grooving even harder than ever. Another crucial development since Brecon is Simcock’s acquisition of a Nord C2 keyboard which he predominately deployed on a “Hammond” organ setting, the classic guitar/organ combination being applied on several of tonight’s pieces, this together with Rodby’s virile bass lines giving a much earthier group sound. This was an unexpected development and made for intriguing but exciting and entertaining listening.
Nussbaum’s brushed drum grooves ushered in the opening number, The Simcock/Walker composed “Modern Day Heroes” from the group’s second album. The piece gained momentum with the introduction of Simcock’s piano arpeggios as Rodby picked out the melody on his bass. The newly bearded Simcock doubled on piano and organ as he and Walker exchanged interlocking melody lines above Rodby’s bass groove as Nussbaum generated enormous power and propulsion through the use of brushes alone before picking up his sticks for a closing drum feature. An exhilarating start.
The band like to share the announcements around and Simcock introduced his own “Just To see You”, another tune drawn from the “Internationally Recognised Aliens” album. The recorded version features the twin basses of Swallow and Rodby and it was particularly apposite that the latter should play on one of Simcock’s most Metheny like melodies. Here the piece began with a gently beguiling piano/guitar duet before giving way to a resonant but melodic Rodby solo delicately embellished by Nussbaum’s filigree cymbal work. Further solos came from the composer, lyrical and expansive at the piano and Walker on the guitar, re-enforcing the influence of Metheny. The American guitarist and composer is a freely acknowledged source of inspiration for Simcock and Walker and a musician with whom both Rodby and Swallow have worked extensively.
From the group’s first album Simcock’s “You Won’t Be Around To See It” offers a pleasingly dark but still tuneful take on the standard “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise”. Ushered in by Nussbaum’s drums tonight’s version offered fractured melodic exchanges between piano and guitar, a scorching rock influenced Walker guitar solo above sophisticated jazz rhythms, an answering statement from Simcock on organ and finally a hard hitting Nussbaum drum solo, this guy can do everything from the sensitive to the brutal, sometimes in the course of the same tune, a common occurrence given the sophistication of the Gents’ writing.
Walker’s engagingly eccentric verbal ramblings presaged his own “Wallenda’s Last Stand”, sourced from the group’s first album and making a welcome return to the set list. Solo guitar introduced the piece with Simcock’s use of organ shedding a different light on the tune. Subsequent bass, piano and guitar solos were all pithy and lyrical with the closing section depicting the high wire walker Wallenda fluttering gently to the ground, the composer giving his subject a dignified exit.
Following this relatively gentle interlude the first set finished on an energetic note with the Simcock/Walker composed “Heute Loiter”, the opening track on the latest album. Walker’s highly charged solo guitar opened proceedings before the group settled into a powerful funk groove with Simcock doubling on piano and organ. Walker’s searing solo, again revealing a strong rock influence , ensured that an excellent first half ended on a high.
The interval featured the consistently amusing Nussbaum helping Alison Vermee with the raffle. Like most jazz musicians there’s nothing stand-offish or pretentious about TIG and all four happily came out to the foyer to mingle with fans after the show. Can you imagine Bono conducting a raffle? Let alone doing it as humorously as Nussbaum.
The second set found the group stretching out on what they described as “extended tunes”. The first of this was Walker’s “The Sliver Of Other Lovers” a piece in which Walker attempts to incorporate elements of rock, pop and classical music into what is nominally a jazz composition. Impressive in it’s scope tonight’s performance succeeded brilliantly with Simcock on piano and Walker on guitar taking the solo honours but I was also impressed with what a great team Nussbaum and Rodby have developed into, their drum and bass parts a perfect fit.
A passage of solo piano provided a bridge into “We Three”, a beautiful new ballad from Nussbaum as yet unrecorded. The composer’s atmospheric use of mallets and brushes was augmented by the cool beauty of Walker’s subsequent guitar solo.
Walker’s “Clockmaker”, dedicated to the father of saxophonist Iain Dixon is one of the most enduring items in the group’s repertoire. A new arrangement opened with Walker’s solo guitar with the composer making effective use of echo and sundry other FX with Nussbaum subsequently adding succinct drum commentary. Eventually the Metheny like melody emerged forming the framework for solos from Walker, Rodby and Simcock at the piano. A more reflective guitar/piano duet was the calm before a storming drum feature incorporating a series of exchanges between Nussbaum and Simcock at the piano, the whole thing climaxed by a series of “clock” effects, ticking cymbals etc.
Simcock sang the praises of Alison Vermee and soundman Peter Maxwell Dickson, the latter again doing a terrific job, and rightly so. Christine Allen and Max Steuer of Basho Records were also thanked before Simcock handed over to Nussbaum to introduce his tune “Sure Would Baby”. This seemingly simple blues (certainly in comparison to some of the rest of the material) has grown and developed along with the band and was tonight the vehicle for extended solos from Simcock at the piano and Walker on guitar, the latter in “full on” blues mode. Elsewhere Simcock doubled on organ and the piece was topped and tailed by features for the composer, his closing solo a study in both power and structure.
This time round the theatre technicians were more attuned to “jazz etiquette” and the house lights stayed down as the audience whooped and hollered their approval. The quartet returned for an encore, a rollicking version of Simcock’s “Barber Blues” inspired by US classical composer Samuel Barber’s “Excursions”, Barber’s exploration of jazz methodology. Rodby started off the solos, I think I saw him take more solos tonight than he did in nearly twenty years with the Metheny group where his role was almost exclusively supportive. Tonight I came to realise what a fine all round bassist he is, an accomplished soloist as well as a powerful and accurate groovemeister and time keeper. Walker on guitar and Simcock at piano were in similarly inspired form as Nussbaum lashed them on while yelling vocal encouragement. This was a rousing, good natured conclusion to a superb evening of music delivered by a refreshingly humble but totally brilliant band.
So, another great night for the newly established Jazz at The Arena. With a host of popular jazz names still to come in the current series I predict a bright future for jazz in the city of Wolverhampton.
Forthcoming dates in the Jazz at the Arena programme 2013/14 are;
Gilad Atzmon and the Orient House Ensemble Saturday 7 December 2013 at 8pm Gilad Atzmon alto & soprano saxophone, clarinet, accordion - Frank Harrison piano, keyboards - Yaron Stavi double bass - Eddie Hick drums
Gary Crosby’s Groundation Friday 14 February 2014 at 8pm Gary Crosby double bass Nathaniel Facey alto sax Shirley Tetteh guitar Moses Boyd drums
Tord Gustavsen Ensemble Sunday 16 March 2014 at 8pm Tord Gustavsen piano Tore Brunborg saxes Mats Eilertsen double bass Jarle Vespestad drums
Kyle Eastwood Band Saturday 26 April 2014 at 8pm Full line-up to be confirmed
Phronesis Saturday 31 May 2014 at 8pm Jasper H?iby bass Ivo Neame piano Anton Eger drums
Arena Theatre, Wulfruna Street, Wolverhampton, West Midlands, WV1 1SE
Box Office and general enquiries
01902 321 321