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Tony Bevan, Matthew Bourne, Tony Buck, Barre Phillips

Tony Bevan, Matthew Bourne, Tony Buck, Barre Phillips at The Vortex, London, 22/11/2010

by Tim Owen

November 27, 2010


The quartet's music was a delicate tracery, the parts entwining and overlapping rather than surging forwards as free music inevitably tends to.

Tony Bevan, Matthew Bourne, Tony Buck, Barre Phillips
The Vortex, London

It’s a rare treat to see the veteran bassist Barre Phillips (who played, lest we forget, with Archie Shepp at Newport, back in 1965) inaction, particularly among such an unexpected ensemble as this. I assume that the choice of personnel for this gig was that of saxophonist and Foghorn label owner Tony Bevan. He has a knack for convening just such one-off ensembles; witness, for example, his recent “A Big Hand” album, alongside Phil Marks, Dominic Lash, and electronics innovator Paul Obermayer. But this line-up, which united Bevan and Phillips with pianist Matthew Bourne and drummer Tony Buck, offered a particularly enticing prospect.

The multi-award-winning Bourne (you can check his Wiki page for details) had a solo album, ?The Molde Concert, released on Foghorn in 2007, and yet the acute, penetrating intelligence that characterises his style isn’t an obvious fit with Bevan’s typically brawny, full-throated (though always astute) playing. Yet here, during one memorable passage at the beginning of the second set, Bourne’s incisive synthesis of clarity and rapidity provided a perfect framework for Bevan’s rapid alto flurries to lock into, and the pairing, at its best, cast the saxophonist in a new light. The pianist can’t be an easy player to second-guess. At times he plays with proto-classical rigour, yet at others he’s utterly unselfconscious in his improvisational impulses. His presence also made for many fascinating contrasts with Phillips, whose playing is similarly beholden to no single tradition.

Tony Buck has been busy with numerous collaborations lately (see my review, for instance, of the record of his Knoxville gig with David Daniell and Christian Fennesz), but he surely remains best known as one third of The Necks. He was an inspired choice as rhythmic mediator for this combo. He can hold down or imply a steady groove, but he hardly fits the role of ?drummer’ in the conventional sense, rather excelling at colouration and percussive embroidery. Tonight, for instance, he made extensive use of a rattle, both as a substitute drum stick and as a percussion instrument, and he twice used a full bundle of sticks. Once he ground them in a circular motion into the drum head, and once he used the bundle as one big stick, losing a cascade in the process. On each occasion, a judicious sound effect was achieved, and any exhibitionism was (perhaps) incidental.

Flanked by this eclectic company, Phillips was as commandingly authoritative as he was supportively attentive. Just as disinclined to humdrum rhythm-keeping as Buck, he’s the most supple and subtle of bassists. While Buck and Bourne frequently held eye contact and traded rhythmic ideas, Phillips effectively acted as anchor and moderator, listening closely and modifying his technique to their changes. His pizzicato frequently lent the set a percussive underpinning that enabled Buck the freedom he needed to operate so effectively. Phillips’ also often looked to Bevan, gauging the saxophonist’s mood and second-guessing his direction.

I would hazard a guess that, although he played with conviction throughout, Tony Bevan probably found this gig harder than usual work. He’s a forthright player, and looked rather uncomfortable in some of the more introspective passages. Following a sequence of lovely rubato bass soloing, which had been first embroidered by cymbal percussion, and then joined by piano in stately accompaniment, Bevan’s entry on alto sax seemed shrill, and drove the piece to an agitated termination. He seemed much happier having switched to the baritone, from which he drew pungent, billowing sonics that satisfyingly permeated the music without overpowering it. A later Bevan re-entry, embellishing the softest of pizzicato bass notes at the conclusion of another Phillips solo, found the saxophonist sounding empathetically bruised and tender.

The quartet’s music was a delicate tracery, the parts entwining and overlapping rather than surging forwards as free music inevitably tends to. Textural interplay was favoured over traded solos, an implicit pulse over explicit rhythm. In one passage Bourne played inside piano while Bevan lightly click/tapped his saxophone’s keys and Phillips used the blunt end of the bow col legno, to tap and scrape, the whole band by this point tightly integrated. This was the most abstract passage among others much more robustly played out, but nothing swung in a jazz sense; rather the music was meticulously considered and rigorously played. It was good to hear, once the set was concluded, that it had been recorded, presumably for future release. It will no doubt bear repeated listening.

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