by Ian Mann
February 22, 2018
It's a great snapshot of the Birmingham scene and features some excellent playing & writing. Demonstrates the variety and vibrancy of the music being created in the city, from small group to big band
“Live At The Spotted Dog”
(Stoney Lane Records SLR1878)
This new album is the second to feature performances recorded live at the weekly jazz nights held at the Spotted Dog pub in Digbeth, Birmingham.
The first, “Jazzdosnaygrowontrees” was a self released fund raising compilation curated by the then organisers Jonathan Silk and Richard Foote back in 2016. Mainly sold at gigs the album featured an excellent selection of music by Birmingham based artists and my review of the album can be read here;
This second instalment will be more widely available and has been given an official release on the Birmingham based Stoney Lane record label established and curated by guitarist Sam Slater of the band TG Collective.
Supported by a Kickstarter campaign the new album again features performances by predominately Birmingham based musicians and yet again it features some excellent music from a variety of line ups ranging from trio to big band. The album features informed, lucid liner notes by promoter Tony Dudley-Evans, “Mr. Jazz” to Birmingham jazz audiences for so many years.
However Dudley-Evans, best known for his role with the Jazzlines organisation, is not directly involved in the organisation of the Tuesday night sessions at the Dog, for this is very much a musician run enterprise. Here’s something of a potted history;
Jazz at the Spotted Dog began in 2011 and was the creation of Miriam Pau and saxophonist Mike Fletcher. At first the idea was just to host local bands and jam sessions but the night soon gathered a good reputation and the Dog found itself part of the national touring circuit with a more formal gig stating at 9.00 pm followed by a late night jam. Apparently even Wynton Marsalis popped in one night for a blow.
Trombonist Richard Foote and drummer Jonathan Silk took over the reins in 2013 and continued to host Jazz at the Spotted Dog with an indefatigable and infectious enthusiasm. Both were born in Scotland but are graduates of the Jazz Course at Birmingham Conservatoire who have stayed on in the city to make major contributions to the Birmingham jazz scene in their dual capacities as performers and promoters.
More recently pianist David Ferris and trumpeter Sean Gibbs took up the baton, with the latter subsequently superseded by saxophonist Chris Young. But despite the personnel changes the format of the evening remains essentially the same with both local and touring bands continuing to visit the venue. During the ‘concert set’ a jar is passed round to collect the suggested donation of £5.00 – something of a bargain considering the quality of the bands the venue attracts – but nominally admission is free.
Foote and Silk were still co-ordinating the programme when these recordings were made during the summer of 2016. Both appear on the album as performers and they also contribute to the album’s liner notes with a lengthy list of “thank yous”.
Among those thanked is the pub’s highly supportive landlord John Tighe. The Spotted Dog is a friendly institution situated in what was traditionally the Irish quarter of Birmingham and the décor still has an Irish theme. The pub is listed in the CAMRA Good Beer Guide and offers a good range of beer at sensible, and sometimes bargain, prices.
I’ve visited the Dog on a couple of occasions, just staying for the ‘concert’ sets, and have thoroughly enjoyed myself. One of these events was an early performance by the Mercury nominated Dinosaur group led by trumpeter Laura Jurd.
If I lived a little closer I’d happily visit the Dog more frequently but it’s on the East side of the city, basically the wrong side for me, and not particularly easy to get to by car. And with the jam sessions going on into the small hours of the morning it’s not particularly practical to undertake a fifty mile drive afterwards. However for any jazz fans living in Birmingham and its more immediate environs and who haven’t found their way to the Spotted Dog yet a visit is highly recommended. As it is I largely have to be content with supporting the venue from afar, publicising its events and writing about enterprises like this second, very good, album.
Turning now, at last, to the music. The Dog has played host to many nationally known jazz names, among them saxophonists Stan Sulzmann, Julian Arguelles and Iain Ballamy and pianist/vocalist Lianne Carroll. London based Sulzmann has particularly strong connections with Birmingham and has taught at the city’s Conservatoire where he is an Honorary Fellow.
The first three tracks feature Sulzmann leading a big band comprised mainly of graduates from the Conservatoire on three of his own compositions. Recorded on 27th September 2016 the line up features;
Stan Sulzmann, Helena Kay, John Fleming – tenor saxes
Chris Young, Elliot Drew – alto saxes
Colin Mills – baritone sax
Tom Walsh, Sean Gibbs, Mike Adlington, Aaron Diaz – trumpets
Kieran McLeod, Richard Foote, Tom Dunnett – trombones
Yusuf Narcin – bass trombone
Ben Lee – guitar
David Ferris – piano
Nick Jurd – bass
Jonathan Silk – drums
First up is a rousing arrangement of Sulzmann’s composition “Chu Chu” with its warm, authentic big band sound full of rich horn voicings and vibrant rhythms with drummer Silk playing a big part in both driving and colouring the music. Sulzmann, alto saxophonist Chris Young and trombonist Kieran McLeod all make substantial contributions as soloists and there’s also some tight, punchy ensemble playing as the album gets off to an invigorating start.
“The Thrill Is Gone” adopts a gentler, more considered approach with its subtle nuances and textures. That said the ensemble passages sometimes embrace a grandeur that is reminiscent of the large ensemble writing of the late Kenny Wheeler, a long term Sulzmann associate. Sulzmann probes with subtlety and at length on tenor, dovetailing neatly with Lee’s guitar. There’s also a majestic trumpet solo from Tom Walsh that incorporates some stunning high register playing.
The last of the big band selections is the Sulzmann tune “Westerly”, which features one of the composer’s most beautiful and memorable melodies. This forms the vehicle for a flowingly lyrical piano solo from David Ferris. Sulzmann subsequently trades tenor solos with Helena Kay, their lucid, conversational playing well supported by Sulzmann’s sophisticated ensemble writing.
Quite how they managed to fit all the musicians of the Sulzmann Big Band into the tiny back room at the Dog remains a mystery but there would have been considerably less difficulty in accommodating the trio of alto saxophonist John O’ Gallagher, bassist Michael Janisch and drummer Andrew Bain. Their two tracks take the music into freer, more obviously improvised territory with the trio interacting effectively around the frameworks of compositions by the saxophonist and bassist.
A leading figure on the New York jazz scene O’Gallagher has spent time in Birmingham studying for a PhD on the latter day music of Coltrane. During his time in the city he’s made a huge contribution to the Birmingham jazz scene as both a performer and as an educator.
First the trio explore one of O’Gallagher’s favourite themes, “Extralogical Railman”, the title an anagram of Charlie Parker’s “Relaxin’ at Camarillo”. It’s a tune that O’Gallagher has recorded twice on his “Honeycomb” and “Live in Brooklyn” albums. Despite the Parker reference the performance also owes something to the methods of Ornette Coleman. O’Gallagher is an intense, imaginative and often fiery soloist and he stretches out at length above the fluid rhythmic accompaniment supplied by Janisch and Bain. The saxophonist is a highly accomplished and fluent improviser, a real ‘monster’ of a player who has made a big impact on the UK jazz scene, often in the company of drummer Jeff Williams. “Railman” also demonstrates Janisch’s formidable abilities as a bass soloist as he enters into a prolonged dialogue with Bain.
Janisch’s “The JJ I Knew” is dedicated to his late brother and originally appeared on the composer’s “Paradigm Shift” album as a solo performance on electric bass. Janisch has subsequently re-worked the piece, arranging it for sextet and for trio as featured here. There’s an urgency and garrulousness about the music as exemplified by O’Gallagher’s exploratory opening solo. This is followed by a polyrhythmic solo drum passage from Bain before a collective restatement of Janisch’s theme.
In 2016 Jonathan Silk released the hugely impressive album “Fragment” on Stoney Lane Records. This showcased his large ensemble writing on a project that included strings as well as conventional jazz big band instrumentation. The album was an artistic triumph for Silk and my review of the work can be read here;
On 14th June 2016 Silk took a scaled down version of the Fragment ‘orchestra’ into the Spotted Dog featuring;
Percy Pursglove – trumpet
Emily Tyrrell, Beth Bellis – violins
Victoria Strudwick – viola
Katy Nagle – cello
Toby Boalch – piano
Nick Jurd – bass
Jonathan Silk- drums
This compilation features “First Light”, a piece from the “Fragment” album that was inspired by the landscape of Silk’s native Scotland. Rich, warm string textures combine effectively with Boalch’s lyrical piano and Silk’s delicately nuanced drumming. Silk’s writing for strings is genuinely impressive and shows great sophistication, dynamic awareness, and maturity but its arguably Pursglove’s mercurially eloquent trumpet solo that represents the true highlight of this performance.
Guitarist Ben Lee is a Conservatoire graduate now based in London. Back in May 2016 he was still an important and increasingly individual presence on the Birmingham jazz scene who had just recorded his début album “In The Tree” for Stoney Lane Records.
The quintet that graces that album is featured here on two Lee compositions with the guitarist joined by Chris Young on alto sax, Richard Foote on trombone, David Ferris on organ and Euan Palmer at the drums. From the album “Beginning of The End” is thrilling, highly contemporary jazz that borrows liberally from rock music. Combining experimentation with quirkiness and a strong sense of groove this is high octane stuff with Young delivering a biting alto solo, but the playing from the whole ensemble is energised and razor sharp throughout.
The new tune “Talk To You” exhibits similar qualities with its jagged, fractured, heavy riffing fuelling powerful solos from Young on alto and the leader on guitar, his playing richly inventive and already highly distinctive.
Finally we hear trumpeter Sean Gibbs’ quintet Fervour, a group containing the now familiar figures of Lee on guitar, and Palmer on drums plus Nick Jurd on bass and Andy Bunting at the piano. Gibbs’ tune “Cheer Up Old Bean” embraces more of a straightahead jazz feel than Lee’s pieces and there’s also an element of funk in Jurd’s springy bass groove and Bunting’s deployment of a classic electric piano sound on his lengthy, but inventive solo. The leader then takes over with a breezy, fluent, pure toned trumpet solo. There’s an essential joyousness about this performance that ensures that the album as a whole ends on an uplifting, effervescent, celebratory note – which is as it should be on this diverse but richly rewarding portrait of the Birmingham jazz scene.
As Tony Dudley-Evans points out in his liner notes there is no recognisable sound or style that distinguishes the Birmingham jazz scene but this album does demonstrate the variety and vibrancy of the music being created in the city, from small group to big band and with musical styles embracing jazz, rock, classical and more. It’s also cross-generational, featuring everybody from recent graduates to elder statesmen such as Stan Sulzmann.
Despite the diversity “Live At The Spotted Dog” actually hangs together very well as an album, thus embodying the Spotted Dog ethos. It’s a great snapshot of the Birmingham scene and features some excellent playing and writing. It’s also good to see the album getting some national attention with a very positive four star review from Selwyn Harris in the February 2018 edition of Jazzwise Magazine.
Support this album and help to keep Jazz At The Spotted Dog a focal point of the Birmingham scene and hosting top quality live jazz.
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