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Will Butterworth Trio

Will Butterworth Trio @ Black Mountain Jazz, The Kings Arms, Abergavenny

by Ian Mann

March 29, 2010


The brilliant young pianist introduces yet another exciting new line up.

At first I wondered just what else I was going to say about Will Butterworth. Prior to this evening I’d seen the brilliant young pianist four times in just over twelve months (all these shows are reviewed elsewhere on this site) and it’s to Butterworth’s credit that each time he’s come up with something fresh and different. At one end of the scale are his re-imaginings of Stravinsky in an exposed duo setting with drummer Dylan Howe and at the other his jazz/funk explorations on Fender Rhodes as heard just before last Christmas in Hay-On-Wye.

The majority of Butterworth’s performances have been at the Assembly rooms in the Welsh Border town of Presteigne where they have a very nice grand piano. Fortunately the Kings Arms has a similar instrument and Butterworth was heard at his best tonight in the company of yet another new line up. Drummer Pete Ibbetson was also present at the Hay-On-Wye gig but for talented young bassist Adam King this was his first appearance with the Butterworth trio. You wouldn’t have known as the trio seamlessly meshed together on their lengthy explorations of some of the more interesting and less obvious pieces in the jazz repertoire plus a couple of Butterworth originals.

This was only the second time I’d seen Butterworth in an orthodox “piano trio” situation, the other being roughly a year ago in Presteigne with bassist Matt Ridley and drummer Jon Scott.That show was recorded with a view to potential CD release but unfortunately I get the impression that this may not actually come to fruition.

Tonight Butterworth opened proceedings with a lengthy solo piano introduction which eventually morphed into the jazz standard “How Deep Is The Ocean”. Almost immediately I was struck, as so often before, by the balance between Butterworth’s right and left hands. He’s a phenomenally rhythmic player whose left hand takes on some fiendishly difficult patterns but he’s also a remarkably fluent right hand soloist. The sight of Butterworth executing the melodic and rhythmic functions simultaneously remains a constant source of absorption and fascination. Not that his two young twenty-something colleagues should be forgotten. Eye contact between the three members of the trio was apparent at all times with Butterworth subtly dictating proceedings with a nod of the head or the arching of an eyebrow. Both King and Ibbetson were featured as soloists during “How Deep” before a further passage of solo piano acted as a segue into an as yet untitled Butterworth composition distinguished by the use of a wide range of chords played by the leader with an almost mathematical precision. Again there were features for bass and drums with the dialogue between Butterworth and Ibbetson particularly impressive. Will later asked for suggestions for a title and I came up with “Black Mountain”, an appropriate and suitably atmospheric name I thought given the location of it’s premi?re performance.

(An aside: The Norwegian pianist and ECM recording artist Tord Gustavsen one played a show at The Edge Arts Centre in Much Wenlock, Shropshire. He included a new, hitherto untitled tune in the set and and announced that he was going to call it “Hobson’s Bitter” after the local beer he’d had with his pre gig meal. When his new album came out I’m sure the tune was on there but it certainly wasn’t named after our local brew, an ale of which I’m particularly fond, plus, my mate, Paul, works at the brewery. Did Tord give his a new tune a fresh title every night of the tour? Was it variously “London Pride” or God help us “Newcastle Brown”? Or was it that when Tord came to record did he “bottle out” of using the Hobson’s title. One can just imagine ECM supremo Manfred Eicher throwing up his hands in horror at the thought of one of his charges naming a tune after something so prosaic as a pint of English beer.)

However I digress. Back in Abergavenny Butterworth and his colleagues enjoyed themselves immensely with a spirited exploration of Bud Powell’s bebop masterpiece “Wail”, one of Butterworth’s favourite pieces. The trio tackled the tricky lines aplomb with King, visibly growing in confidence turning in a fine solo before Butterworth and Ibbetson engaged in further spirited musical conversation. 

Solo piano introduced the trio’s lovely reading of the ballad “I’m Through With Love” with Ibbetson showing his sensitive side with some delicate brush work. King turned in his finest solo to date, fluent and expressive as well as technically brilliant. 

The first set concluded with MJQ pianist John Lewis’ composition “Two Degrees East Three Degrees West”-I looked this up, I’m sure Will announced it the other way round. Anyway the piece was notable for the superb interplay between King and Ibbetson; Butterworth introduced the pair as being “two of the finest young players in the country” before adding as a coda “in my opinion”. It was an opinion with which the members of a pleasingly well populated BMJ audience were more than happy to concur after an excellent first half.

Promoter Mike Skilton was extremely pleased both with the quality of the music and the size of the turnout. A healthy attendance makes for a good atmosphere in which both musicians and audience can enjoy the music and in the longer term it helps to ensure the financial survival of the club. Following on from last month’s hugely successful gig with Mornington Lockett it was once again smiles all round. During the break both band and audience revived themselves with the Kings’ tasty tapas before coming back for an equally enjoyable second half.

Since I last saw him play Butterworth seems to have renewed his fascination with the music of Thelonious Monk. Much of his playing tonight was vaguely “Monkish” as Butterworth sketched melodies with his right hand and none more so than on Thelonious’ own “Monk’s Dream” which opened the second set. The pianist worked up to a feverish pace, matched every step of the way by Ibbetson’s rifle shot snare.

Tadd Dameron’s “On A Misty Night” calmed things down a little with Ibbetson switching to brushes. All three musicians were extensively featured with King going first, his dexterous playing subtly punctuated by Butterworth’s piano chording. The pianist followed with a typically eloquent statement before Ibbetson featured at the drums with a carefully constructed solo.

“A Child Is Born” maintained the mood and was something of a showcase for the brilliant playing of the leader, tastefully supported by his young colleagues with Ibbetson once again deploying the brushes.

The Monk influence came to the fore again on Butterworth’s original “Hipsticks”, the composers “Monkish” pianistics driven on by the fizz of Ibbetson’s ride cymbal and the crack of the snare. As on most of the other pieces Butterworth allowed his band mates plenty of space and King and Ibbetson both turned in their now customarily excellent solo features.

Butterworth’s solo piano introduction to “Stella By Starlight” included something of the intensity of his Stravinsky based work before the trio took this most hackneyed of standards well off the beaten track and gave it a good natured shaking.

The audience responded to the group’s sense of adventure and called them back for a well deserved encore. This proved to be Ornette Coleman’s “When Will The Blues Leave”, a piece Butterworth has performed before at his Presteigne shows. Here the trio swung prodigiously with Butterworth chording in gospel fashion and Ibbetson excelling with a dynamic solo.

Speaking to Will afterwards he talked of how he was trying to strike a balance between composition and improvisation. He and his colleagues certainly take the music a long way out, stretching the fabric of tunes to breaking point but without ever becoming totally “free”. It’s a challenging approach but it’s one that adventurous audiences in the Welsh Borders have responded to and Butterworth has accrued something of a cult following in the area. Following a recent feature in Jazzwise magazine it seems that London is at last catching up. Where The Marches lead the capital follows.

Will is back in Presteigne on the 17th April with his Hatton Hills Quartet featuring Ibbetson plus Marcus Penrose on bass and young Tom Harvey on alto sax. It’s the same line up that played at Hay but this time Butterworth will be on grand piano rather than electric. I’m looking forward to finding yet more fresh things to say about this remarkable young talent. That and asking him why, like fellow pianist Tim Lapthorn, he seems to favour playing without his shoes on.

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