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Trish Clowes’ Tangent Quintet

Trish Clowes’ Tangent Quintet, Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton, 28/02/2015.

Photography: Photograph of Trish Clowes sourced from the Arena Theatre website [url=][/url]

by Ian Mann

March 04, 2015


Ian Mann enjoys a performance by saxophonist and composer Trish Clowes with a quintet featuring the talents of pianist Gwilym Simcock.

Trish Clowes Tangent Quintet, Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton, 28/02/2015.

In October 2014 I wrote a piece that reviewed a performance by saxophonist and composer Trish Clowes and her Tangent Quartet at the Gateway Arts Centre in Shrewsbury. The article also took a look at Clowes’ most recent album, “Pocket Compass”, recorded by a core quintet of Clowes, Chris Montague (guitar), Calum Gourlay ( double bass), James Maddren (drums) and Gwilym Simcock (piano). The album includes three pieces incorporating the sound of the BBC Concert Orchestra under the baton of conductor Andre de Ridder, the orchestra’s inclusion probably the result of Clowes’ tenure as a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist, following in the illustrious footsteps of Simcock, trumpeter Tom Arthurs and multi reeds player Shabaka Hutchings.

Born into a musical family in Shrewsbury Clowes studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London where she is now based. Signed to Basho Records her three albums to date have all featured ambitious fusions of jazz and classical structures and have featured violins and cellos alongside the core jazz instrumentation, this process reaching its apotheosis with the inclusion of the orchestra on “Pocket Compass”.

Most of Clowes’ live shows are performed by the core quartet of Clowes, Montague, Gourlay and Maddren suggesting that Clowes sees live work and recording as very different processes. Although Simcock is regarded as a fully integrated member of the group his own busy schedule entails that he is not always available for gigs and we were very lucky that he was able to appear here tonight in Wolverhampton. It represented a swift and welcome return as he had appeared at the Arena less than a month ago as part of the consistently brilliant Impossible Gentlemen.

The generic “Tangent” name comes from the title of Clowes’ 2011 début album and for tonight the group consisted of Clowes, Simcock, Gourlay and Maddren plus the versatile Alex Munk on guitar, a temporary replacement for Montague who is currently touring with the band Troyka. A highly resourceful player Munk fitted right in with the Tangent aesthetic and made a substantial contribution to the success of the evening. Earlier in the day the group had conducted a music workshop with local school children, part of Jazz @ Wolverhampton’s outreach programme, and a number of these young musicians were present in the audience.

The programme differed significantly from the Shrewsbury set by placing a greater emphasis on the “Pocket Compass” material. A case in point was the opening piece “Balloon” which didn’t feature at Shrewsbury and which includes an orchestral arrangement on the album. Now tailored for quintet the piece was dedicated to Christine Allen of Basho Records and to Iain Ballamy, Clowes’s former tutor, the title an oblique reference to Ballamy’s début solo album “Balloon Man”. The arpeggiated intro led to a soprano solo from Clowes that also revealed the influence of Wayne Shorter, another key inspiration. Further solos came from Simcock at the piano and the able Munk on guitar.

Clowes’ jazz influences are very much at the contemporary end of the spectrum as evidenced by the suitably spiky and challenging “Porcupine” which saw her moving to tenor. A deceptively gentle guitar and piano intro led to an excellent solo by Gourlay on double bass, his melodic but resonant playing subtly shadowed by Maddren’s drums. These two constitute a highly effective rhythm team and they also function as the engine room of pianist Kit Downes’ trio and quintet. Clowes’ tenor solo featured some of her most garrulous playing of the set and a freely structured episode also included some of the most consciously “avant garde” playing I’ve ever seen from Simcock.  As these elements combined with Munk’s swirling guitar lines and Maddren’s busy, sometimes explosive drumming it was obvious that this “Porcupine” was a very prickly beast indeed.

The writings of Oscar Wilde are a touchstone for Clowes and the words of his poem “Symphony in Yellow” adorn the CD packaging for “Pocket Compass”. This paean to London and the Thames inspired Clowes’ tune of the same name which began here with the lush, languid melodies of piano, tenor sax and guitar evoking the slow moving river.  Clowes’ tenor solo was accompanied by the sound of brushed drums but it was the clatter of sticks on rims that supported Simcock’s piano feature, the increase in pace and intensity perhaps representing the frenetic activity of the docks. Munk’s spacey, Pink Floyd style guitar, supported by brushed drums and hushed, breathy tenor, then seemed to represent something of a dream sequence before the main theme returned. This was Clowes’ writing at its best, ambitious and evocative.

“Question Mark” re-introduced some of Clowes’ more experimental leanings with its buzzy soprano sax intro over Gourlay’s arco bass drone and Munk’s guitar scratchings and scrapings.
Things took a more conventional return with the addition of drums and piano with Clowes contributing an incisive soprano sax solo above increasingly assertive rhythms. Simcock’s sparkling piano solo was positively joyous and Maddren took definite relish in his powerful drumming.

In 2013 Clowes undertook a visit to California, the trip directly influencing her composition “Pfeiffer and the Whales”. This impressionistic piece features Clowes replicating the sound of whale song via her soprano saxophone. On record the effect was achieved by blowing her horn directly into the innards of Simcock’s grand piano and harnessing the resultant resonances and echoes. Tonight she made use of a Cathedral effects unit, combining multiphonics with live processing to realise a similarly beautiful effect of echo and decay.
Her Jan Garbarek like sonorities were perfectly suited to the Arena’s acoustics and she received sympathetic support from Gourlay’s judiciously plucked bass, Munk’s guitar shadings, Maddren’s mallet rumbles and Simcock’s snatches of piano melody. With the atmospheric beauty of the music still hanging in the air the saxophonist chose to end the first half at this point.

As at Shrewsbury the second set began with “Radiation”, the opening tune on “Pocket Compass”. This was substantially different to the performance at the Gateway with Clowes on tenor now sharing the solos with Simcock rather than Montague. Thus tonight’s reading was closer in spirit to the recorded version but only to a degree as the album track also incorporates full orchestration.

A new piece with the marvellous title “A Cat Called Behemoth” was dedicated to the pets of Birmingham based trumpeter/bassist Percy Pursglove who was seated in the audience and owns two Siamese cats called Tallulah and Yasmin. I think I’m correct in saying that the title was originally sourced from the novel “The Master and Margarita” by the Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov. An introduction featuring piano and Bill Frisell like guitar presaged high quality solos from Clowes on tenor plus Munk, Gourlay and Simcock.

Clowes returned to “Pocket Compass” for “Chorale”, the final track on the album and another piece that has been graced with an orchestral arrangement. Small group renderings of the orchestral pieces from the album were a feature of tonight’s show - “Chorale” and “Balloon” had both been omitted at Shrewsbury.
Inspired by the compositions of Oliver Messiaen “Chorale” is a spacious piece with something of the birdsong quality that inspired Messiaen’s music. After an introduction featuring tenor sax, guitar, arco bass and brushed cymbals subsequent solos came from Gourlay on pizzicato bass and Munk on crystalline guitar, both musicians supported by Maddren’s delicately brushed drums. Clowes’ tenor sax solo added a slightly more urgent element just prior to the close.

The trip to California included a meeting between Clowes and the great Wayne Shorter. The tune “Wayne’s Waltz” was a dedication to the jazz legend and was a feature for Clowes on soprano sax, soloing incisively above unexpectedly jagged rhythms.

Another new tune, “I Can’t Find My Other Brush”, the title coming from a drum related incident involving Maddren, began with a tricky, Ornette Coleman style head before opening out to encompass expansive solos from Clowes on tenor, Munk on guitar and Simcock at the piano.

Although the music had sometimes been complex and challenging the audience responded with sufficient warmth to coax the quintet back for an encore. Interestingly this was a gig where individual solos came and went without applause (perhaps this was due to the theatre environment) but it was still obvious that the audience had enjoyed what they’d heard.

The encore was “A Little Tune”, a piece sourced from Clowes’ second album and deliberately written in the style of a jazz standard. With its mainstream feel and 4/4 rhythms it was the perfect “wind down” piece after a night of busy and sometimes complicated music.

On the whole tonight’s show surpassed the Shrewsbury performance due largely to the presence of Simcock who added an extra dimension to the band’s sound. He’s the kind of player whose presence enhances every kind of musical situation.

Another huge plus was the quality of the sound by the Arena’s regular engineer Peter Maxwell Dickson who has described the venue as being “a pleasure to work at”. Tonight’s sound balance was crystal clear and immaculate with every note and nuance clearly discernible. 

My thanks go the Arena’s Marketing Manager Sam Fleming for providing my press tickets and to Calum Gourlay for providing me with a review copy of his new solo double bass album “Live At The Ridgeway” which I will be taking a look at in due course. 


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