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Will Butterworth Quartet

Will Butterworth Quartet, The Vortex Jazz Club, Dalston, London, 29/07/2013.

by Ian Mann

July 31, 2013


"No more GYP at The Vortex". Guest reviewer Tony Walton enjoys a top quality jazz performance by pianist Will Butterworth's quartet.




Pianist Will Butterworth has only himself to blame for continuing to attract the “great young prospect” tag in his 36th year of life and his fifteenth as a practising jazz musician of taste, skill and superlative imagination - although it has to be said, as the leader of a band featuring three highly talented players a few years behind him, he’s finally beginning to look his age. Of course, he can’t help being baby-faced, but it’s also a fact that his relaxed approach to self-promotion - allied to his lack of a formal jazz education - has sidelined him to an extent over the years, while much younger pianists rocket to what, in the jazz world, amounts to stardom, with major record deals, concert dates and applause from their well-established teachers within hours of graduating, and often even before.

Butterworth, on the other hand, with a genetics degree from Edinburgh University, is entirely self-taught - through the forensic attention he’s paid for the last twenty years to the likes of Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, Brad Mehldau and, of course, every pianist’s favourite guru, Thelonius Monk. Also, he doesn’t get out of London enough - but if he can get the gigs in the capital, where he lives happily with his delightful French girlfriend, then why not. The Vortex is a regular supporter of his various incarnations, as is The Dysart Arms in Richmond, and he can also be found on a weekly basis at intimate venues in Marylebone and Finsbury Park. In a dangerous flirtation with wider recognition, he played the Pizza Express in Dean Street earlier in the year with his piano trio - of which date there may be a CD in the offing.

I have to confess an interest: I am a maternal cousin of his - but this only serves to make me an expert on the subject, having seen him play now upwards of a dozen times, and almost never in the same group twice; the sole exception being the stunningly adventurous Stravinsky Duo with drummer Dylan Howe. He has the pianist’s love and admiration for players of other instruments, and is never satisfied with what he’s got (however good it sounds to a less hair-splittingly critical ear) seeking out new collaborators and fresh permutations with a true jazz-player’s insatiable appetite for novelty-in-the-moment. If he can better this outfit, we’ll all need to go and find a dark room to lie down in.

And so, with this new Quartet, he’s put together drummer Pete Ibbetson, from his piano trio (check out ?Hereafter’ from 2011), alto saxophonist Seb Pipe from their trio Tournesol with bassist Marcus Penrose (their eponymous CD was also released in 2011) and a double-bass player he only got together with a year ago, Nick Pini.

Pini was the one I hadn’t heard before - and he proved to be an absolute revelation. With Will’s passionate admiration for Larry Grenadier, Pini has a lot to live up to, but I’ll wager Larry himself would have been first to his feet last night - and not to leave early. Will’s been raving about Pini since they began rehearsing together, and now I know why. He follows Henrik Jensen, Adam King, Matt Ridley and Penrose in holding down the bass slot in a Butterworth line-up (Jensen and Penrose continuing to be regular collaborators) but you only had to read the body-language of his band-mates last night to understand that he’s joy to play with.

As all great bass players do, he simultaneously drove and anchored the band, enabling Ibbetson to give full rein to his extraordinary repertoire of sounds both delicate and startling throughout the evening. As with many small club venues, the rhythm section was often too loud for their colleagues, but this only enabled the audience to more fully appreciate the astonishing ability on offer. As a unit, they are simply unbeatable, and if Butterworth doesn’t crawl naked over hot coals and broken glass to keep them together in this setting, I shall be having serious words with him. Not that he listens to me, or anyone else, of course, and quite right too.

What marked out Nick and Pete especially was the musicality of their featured moments. How often is one left nodding with sage approval at the technical ability of a bass or drum solo - but left feeling cold in terms of its subtlety and downright beauty. Last night, everything these two young players touched turned instantly to gold. One awaits the band’s debut recording with bated impatience.

Pete Ibbetson is a player of truly precocious excellence - but, then, the great drummers always are, more so perhaps than with any other instrumentalist. Tony Williams had scarcely started shaving when Miles gave him the nod. Branford has replaced the colossus that is Tain with a kid who I believe is still in shorts (if not quite nappies). Ibbetson - in a neat mnemonic - has all the i’s: imagination, inventiveness, immaculate time-keeping and irresistible grooves. He’s a one-man refutation to the absurd contention that you can’t dance to small-group jazz music. The fact that Butterworth has, for several years now, called-off his quest for other drummers says it all really. Dylan Howe is a tough act to follow, but Pete does so without breaking sweat.

And then there’s Seb Pipe, a sax player whose eloquence and tone call to mind the truly great Chris Potter. (Comparisons such as this are odious, and unfair to both parties, but that won’t stop me.) I’ve absorbed his lyrical genius - the sheer beauty of which he is effortlessly capable, it seems - by listening to Tournesol live and on record, and if that was all there was to him, I be far from the first to complain. It never did Paul Desmond any harm to be always in the same area. But Pipe is, properly, a restless soul creatively. He’s almost dismissive of his work with Tournesol, simply because it gives the appearance of depth-in-limitation. And hearing him last night, I can understand why. He ripped into Parker’s Au Privave as the encore, and reassembled the pieces like Marcel Duchamps. He showed us April as I certainly never Remember it (as did all four of them in turn, with truly ridiculous attack) and, just to show that lyricism is as strong in his armoury as any of his weapons, he brought tears to the eye with his exquisite treatment of the Strayhorn-Ellington classic In a Sentimental Mood. The hairs stand up just typing these words?.

The Quartet played two sets, of course, and the first was Will’s new suite, given here in its entirety for the first time, inspired by Oscar Wilde’s children’s story ?The Nightingale and the Rose’. I’ve not read it and he didn’t bother us with even a reference to it, much less a synopsis, in his typically off-hand introduction - but as a writer, I’m not going to complain about any literary inspiration that engenders great music. (Potter’s ECM debut, The Sirens, incidentally, shows - from the track titles alone - that he’s actually read Homer’s ?Odyssey’ and appreciated it as well.)

Composition is not the least of Butterworth’s skills. He not only writes beautiful tunes, he did the scores for the two famous works of Strav as re-interpreted with Dylan Howe. And there was much absorbing beauty in this new work. There were (if I counted correctly) five movements, the stand-outs of which, for me, were the very Monkish second, and the wonderfully jaunty fourth - where Will laid down an ongoing groove that called to mind the hypnotic quality of much of the Rite of Spring. Springy is what this passage was, and Pini and Ibbetson enjoyed themselves with it enormously. There was also an amusing (by which I mean, it brought a smile to my face) staccato sequence subsequently which was, possibly, the nightingale’s song. Well, it probably wasn’t the rose blooming. It was, altogether, an experience I look forward to re-visiting, both on the bandstand and (I hope) in the comfort of the nearest CD-playing facility.

But it was the second set that was what jazz music is truly all about. Introduced by Will as “some standards”, it comprised an extensive workout for just a few, which I’ve already referenced here - plus the lovely In Your Place, his composition from the Tournesol repertoire. There’s not a lot for me to add about the peerless excellence of this experience, except to say that a packed house of more than sixty closely attentive people became more and more excited as it unfolded - and quite rightly so.

If you have a chance to get to this band live, cancel everything else and do it. If there’s any justice in this world (and in my experience, there isn’t) these three Great Young Prospects - led with real generosity by the one who really isn’t a Prospect any more, but a fully-fledged Arrival, and no mean talent-scout into the bargain - will together go on to national acclaim - if not even further. Here’s hoping.

TONY WALTON / 30th July 2013


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