by Ian Mann
November 06, 2014
Ian Mann witnesses a performance that turns accepted jazz wisdom on its head.
Tommy Andrews Quintet, Dempsey’s, Cardiff, 05/11/2014.
The young saxophonist, clarinettist and composer Tommy Andrews released his début solo album “The Crux” earlier in 2014, an impressively mature piece of work that highlighted his abilities both a musical performer and as a composer. An intelligent and widely read young man Andrews’ varied interests include physics, astronomy, classical mythology and rock climbing, all of which have informed his writing.
For tonight’s appearance in Cardiff he was joined by exactly the same quintet that appears on the album with Rick Simpson on piano, Nick Costley-White on guitar, Dave Manington on double bass and Dave Hamblett at the drums. Their first set consisted of the performance of five of the seven pieces that make up “The Crux” (although, ironically, not the title track) the second was a new suite of seven movements inspired by the moons of Jupiter, “The Galilean Suite”. It was a performance that turned existing jazz wisdom on its head, but I’ll come to that later.
Set one began with “Sirens”, the piece that also opens “The Crux”. Inspired by the noise of London traffic and the sound of burglar alarms it was more impressionistic and lyrical than the title and the sources of inspiration might suggest, building gradually from Simpson’s solo ostinato piano intro through some tightly written ensemble passages incorporating the leader’s understated alto, Manington’s bowed bass and Hamblett’s cymbal splashes. When reviewing the album I commented that is was unusual for a saxophonist to open his début solo recording with a tune that was essentially a feature for the pianist and Simpson was the principal soloist here, his deceptively lazy looking technique the vehicle for a feature that combined lyricism with an exploratory edge, the piece eventually resolving itself by returning to that opening ostinato.
“Mr. Skinny Legs” takes its title from a nickname for spiders bestowed by Andrews’ young cousins Jack and Freddie. Like much of the writing on “The Crux” there is a theoretical precept behind this tune with the piece developing out of a simple four note chord but with one note changing all the time to give melodic and harmonic variety. Inevitably the piece became ever more complicated as it progressed and acted as the launching pad for expansive solos from Costley-White, hitherto only heard in a textural role, on guitar and Andrews himself on alto, taking the opportunity to stretch out as as Simpson temporarily sat out.
With all five musicians reading assiduously there were forests of sheet music all over the stage, particularly for the constantly mutating “Mr Skinny Legs”. Andrews admitted that he has a tendency to over complicate things and revealed that for the next item, “Crystal Car”, he had challenged himself to write something deliberately simple that would occupy only one side of manuscript paper. With the focus on “melody and lushness” (Andrews’ words) the piece was an affecting ballad with beautifully melodic solos from Manington on double bass and Andrews on pure toned alto. The tasteful but colourful playing of Hamblett was a significant factor in the album’s success and his brushwork here was typically immaculate.
“Toscana” (or “Sirens Part II ) was inspired by the sound of a faulty siren on an Italian ambulance, the resultant pattern forming the basis of the composition. Andrews demonstrated the sound on clarinet before the quintet commenced playing the piece. Like its predecessor it developed out of Simpson’s piano arpeggios and saw Andrews starting on clarinet, switching to alto and then moving back again. This alternating of instruments was something of a feature of the evening although it’s less immediately noticeable on record. Costley-White was the other featured soloist on a piece that more obviously drew its inspiration from the sirens of the title.
The first set ended with “L.H.B.”, the title an abbreviation for the astronomical term “Late Heavy Bombardment”, a phrase coined by Galileo to describe the battering of the inner planets of the solar system by asteroids. Building from Hamblett’s opening drum pattern ( a kind of ultra slow hip hop groove) via bass and piano, and subsequently clarinet and guitar, this is one of Andrews’ most episodic and cinematic pieces. A switch to a more energetic and urgent 5/4 saw the group ratcheting up the tension via piano and alto led passages with Costley-White contributing spacey, effects laden guitar. After releasing the tension via a brief lyrical episode Andrews finally delivered the “L.H.B” of the title via a blistering alto solo that contained some of his best and most impassioned playing of the evening thus far - the only time that one felt he’d really cut loose.
This first set was generally well received but during the interval there were one or two audience comments to the effect that the music was too obviously through composed and lacking in improvisational content. “Too dry”, “too academic”, “too complex” and “lacking in passion” were some of the remarks I overheard and much as I admire “The Crux” as an album I could appreciate where these comments were coming from. The quintet played from the scores throughout and only on the leader’s final alto solo was there the sense of somebody really taking off and letting go. Andrews is certainly a very serious young man, “earnest” was one description I heard, and this aspect of his nature is certainly reflected in his writing. And yet someone who works for pop group McFly and in the X Factor Big Band must obviously have a lighter side - and the money’s probably not bad either!
Quite what some of the dissenters thought when Andrews announced that the second set was going to be an unbroken suite of music of seven movements inspired by the moons of Jupiter I hate to think. And yet this previously unheard material actually turned out to be the highlight of the evening.
The seven movements comprised of a brief introduction, a second movement dedicated to the joy of learning and discovery, four successive movements dedicated to the individual moons Calisto, Europa, Ganymede and Io, plus a finale. It sounded daunting but the “Galilean Suite” turned out to be a delight, a multi faceted, shape shifting, constantly evolving tapestry of music with many wonderful ensemble and individual moments.
The introduction featured a duet of clarinet and piano which subtly evolved into the celebratory second movement with its joyous piano and alto solos with Andrews subsequently moving back to clarinet to lead the solos in what was presumably the third movement. With Andrews’ writing deploying many of the structures and cadences of progressive rock (Yes and Genesis were significant inspirations) the suite was a thoroughly immersive experience and after a while I stopped trying to differentiate between the actual movements and just allowed myself to become absorbed in the music.
It seemed to me that Andrews had left more gaps in the writing of this new material than he had done anywhere on “The Crux”, holes created deliberately for his colleagues to fill with their improvisational skills. Indeed he confirmed this for me later. Thus the suite was full of delightful cameo moments including dialogues between piano and alto and later double bass and guitar. There was also a near free jazz episode as Andrews almost threatened to let go of the reins completely.
The soloists also seemed to relish this new found freedom with Manington and Costley-White both taking the opportunity to stretch out. Simpson had clearly been given carte blanche to express himself on an absorbing extended passage of solo piano.
As Andrews had explained in his introduction both Calisto and Ganymede had been seduced by the god Zeus and the anger of the victims plus the wrath of Hera was expressed in the music including a belligerent Andrews alto solo backed up by a hypnotic Hamblett drum groove and subsequent solo drum feature.
I don’t think I was the only audience member to be surprised by just how much they’d enjoyed “The Galilean Suite”, a piece of work that is surely destined to form the basis of the quintet’s second album.
In my experience presentations of extended new works such as this tend to be rather tentative, formal affairs with everybody following the notes very carefully and afraid of making mistakes.
“The Galilean Suite” was just the opposite as the members of the quintet relished the opportunity to spread out and take risks with everybody seemingly much more relaxed and taking a real delight in their playing.
In the case of the Andrews group it was the first set of more familiar tunes that seemed to be rather stiff and formal and with a greater reliance on the “dots”. A nightmare journey from London and an over familiarity with the material may not have helped. Nonetheless it’s accepted jazz wisdom that bands will take more liberties with material that has already been “played in” as the Dempsey’s crowd witnessed only the previous week as Yorkshire based piano trio Eyeshutight gleefully de-constructed and improvised around the material from their latest album “Resonance”.
Hence the comment that the Andrews quintet had turned received jazz wisdom on its head - things aren’t supposed to happen this way round. That they did is a tribute to Andrews’ rapidly maturing talent as a jazz musician and a jazz composer as he strives to strike just the right balance between the structured and the improvised that characterises all the best jazz. On this evidence the recording of “The Galilean Suite” should be well worth hearing.
The Tommy Andrews Quintet will be playing a double bill with Let Spin at the Green Note, Camden as part of the 2014 EFG London Jazz Festival. Details below;
Tommy Andrews Quintet & Let Spin
Sunday 23 November 2014 | 8:00PM
Tommy Andrews Quintet make their debut EFG London Jazz Festival performance. The group play compositions from the new album The Crux (Jellymould Jazz) and perform newly composed Galilean Suite. The quintet is quickly gaining a reputation as one of London’s most exciting up-and-coming groups with their The Crux gaining critical acclaim right from the off.
‘A great example of an emerging talent stretching his wings’ (JazzUK)
Tommy Andrews (saxophone)
Nick Costley-White (guitar)
Rick Simpson (piano)
Dave Manington (bass)
Dave Hamblett (drums)
Let Spin is a collective that forges the progressive post-jazz scenes of London and Manchester, bringing together four top instrumentalists from around the UK; bassist Ruth Goller (Acoustic Ladyland), saxophonist Chris Williams (Led Bib), guitarist Moss Freed (Moss Project) and drummer Finlay Panter (Beats & Pieces Big Band).
Following an electrifying UK tour and an critically-acclaimed debut album, Let Spin are set to bring their imagative mix of riffs, grooves and softer melodies to the EFG London Jazz Festival November.
‘An original identity that promises to be one of UK jazz’s best. A significant new force’ (The Guardian)
‘A new prog-jazz supergroup’ (Jazzwise)