Review: Durham’s Jazz Septet

By Tom Watling 

Up until a year and half or so ago I hadn’t the slightest clue any which way about jazz music, and then, meeting this wafro-clad, bible-reading jazz-obsessed raver of a man, whose name I will omit for his sake, I begun to rather enjoy it. The jazz, that is. Now I find myself sitting in a strange and intimate little venue in a great big OAP chair waiting to hear and review a jazz septet comprised of some supposedly phenomenal jazz musicians as part of their After Hours jazz instalments, wondering what my seventeen-year-old clueless self would think of me missing the Chelsea Barca game for this. To most inappropriately and unprofessionally quote Bob Dylan, I guess ‘The Times They Are A-Changin,’ because I quickly forgot the fact that we were already one-nil down at the hands of Messi and was absorbed by the first solo, that of lead saxophone (Alto) Dan Garel’s, oddly enough the bloke that invited me in the first place: I mean I didn’t quite forget about Chelsea but old habits die hard; and Dan, and the succeeding three soloists, were doing a damn good job to entice an idiot like me. Pardon my egotistical pretence.

The first track played, the one with the four (aforementioned) solos, was a cover of Charles McPhereson’s ‘Primal Rage,’ and although I thought the drums were slightly off, and perhaps too loud, the song rolled forwards with inviting vigour. Morris put forth a shy solo on the trombone, and sadly never quite became more than background. Zack Fox, peculiarly an old schoolmate of mine, issued a solo sonically enriched, for want of a more superfluous description, and the gig kicked off in a true, befuddled yet bewildered and intrigued me fashion. Not a perfect start but I imagine I would have been bored otherwise, and it most certainly promised greater things.

The second cover was one of two from Horace Silver, entitled Silver’s Serenade. And if I’m being critically honest, the three solos and accompanying melody added little to the promise of the previous song. I will say only two more things of this song: that it by no means produced a regressive effect on the audience, or me, of one step forwards and two back, but simply one step sideways; and I think, in my Ti Jean opinion, that this was more symptomatic of the song choice than the performance, although a sense of disconnection between the players lingered in the back of my intrigued little bittersweet mind.

The third track, however, introduced as ‘Of a new cool’ by Christian Scott, greedily reinvigorated the intrigue gently receding within me, and the “grabbed me by the balls with this start” of the song was everything I was looking for. The trumpet and lead sax ushered in the promise I alluded to earlier and the drums, after perhaps a shaky start, were strong and bouncy, and the fact I wrote ‘real good drums’ four times in my notes, on this track, is testament to that. Again, Dan’s solo on the lead alto did not disappoint, and the sound was powerful and impulsive. What I found most impressive about Dan, as lead and simply as a great saxophonist, was his effervescing ability to galvanise the septet, and for me, that solo was the first moment of truth; one that really kicked everything and everyone up a notch. It was followed by a Michael Williams ‘wet-the-whistle’ trumpet solo that no less whet my appetite with a crooning tarnish, and was succeeded, towards the end of the track, with a muted trumpet addition, which gave the song the perfect finish.

My interest had been captured.

The fourth track was certainly more melancholic and the individual talent was showcased through this eclectic variation of song type. Called ‘Seen’ by David Binney, the drums and guitar kicked it off and the soft congruency, forgive the mechanical word, of the running bass brought together the start of a great song. The saxes, trombone and flugelhorn kicked in, and once more, Dan’s solo on alto sax is tantalising, and its rippling end pays homage to the altogether more gently sombre mood of this cover. The flugelhorn follows and it doesn’t do as much as the alto for me – it rings pretty eerie but guess that’s quite fitting to the sepulchral taste of this track and all. I must, nevertheless, keep giving props to Dan on the lead sax ‘cos he’s making me feel things I’m too unfortunately masculine too admit.

The final song of the first set, the second Horace Silver cover, named as Moon rays and a “corker of a composition,” shows Dan make way for Zack on the tenor sax. The build-up is slow, perhaps too slow since I seem to have broken the seal, but as my mind ponders the notion of wandering off, Fox lets out a solo with a so and so earnest and deep hue to it, and Dan’s following solo is brilliant but Fox takes it for me. And that says more about Zack than it does Dan. Perhaps a natural consequence of most jazz performances, the two saxophones grab one’s attention most fervently, not least because their confidence oozes through as they bounce to the melody and their solos. Not sure the drums are doing it for me, again, but the churlish, girlish wink of the two saxes nearing the conclusion of the track really animate the piece; something I’m later told is known as a scoop.

And we break for interval. A quick cigarette and rummaging through my strange notes is in order and surely and quickly enough, I’m sat back in my OAP chair in salivating anticipation of the next set, all of which are covers from Duke Pearson’s album, ‘The Right Touch.’

If I had to pull out a negative from the first set, I would say that the septet still lacked fluidity between each player and hadn’t quite breached the remarkable task of becoming more than just the sum of its parts. But nonetheless, my interest had been captured.

A cover of ‘Chilli Peppers’ wastes no time kick starting it all off again with a more upbeat sound. The drums are improving but still not quite right, whether it be in time or pitch. The bass player is in my eyes a little Phil Lesh waiting to break out of his shell, maybe I just love Lesh too much, I don’t know. And Zack stands up for another solo, exuding confidence through his infectious sound, and after a few moments I find myself wanting not to note anymore, rather just sit here in my plushy OAP chair and bounce. The accompanying counter sound of the cowbell adds an extra finesse to the track and the gel between the players begins to form a little better now. The sound is smoother, I think. The guitar and double bass are really holding this one for me but the solo of the former is too quiet and somewhat dull, not so much ‘grabs your attention’ but ‘grab your beer.’ It’s not sloppy; rather it lacks the vigour and confidence of the two saxophones and the tendency of the drums to hit a little loud makes the good intention of the guitar too humble and easy to overlook.

Then it’s the ‘Make it Good’ cover. I can’t help but thinking the guitar is too meagre, both in noise and demeanour. The flugelhorn solo nods to the confidence eager to erupt from Williams but nevertheless reserves a little still. And again, I think the guitar is a great support at this point but no lead, yet Gavin Jackson on the double bass in in true Leshian fashion oddly infectious as he lulls along the track, and not in the least because his fringe is robustly straight and at total odds with his plucking hip hands.

Onto ‘My Love Waits.’ Flugelhorn solo is it still itching to break out but nonetheless enjoyable. The crooning sound is almost there. The guitar falls on its all too familiar sword, overpowered by the drums and too quiet in spirit and sound.

“We’ll see you on the other side” prompts the next song, ‘Los Malos Hombres.’ Jackson has switched to a bass guitar and the pace of the track is rapid. Fox kicks off the solos, followed by Williams, the flugelhorn player playing the trumpet now. He’s now finally arrived with the oomph he’s been trying to bang all night, he’s running this solo demanding the audience follow him, and I’d be much obliged: it’s fast, impactful and its infectious. Dan, leading the alto, remains a force to be reckoned with and picks up the baton from Williams and I really like it. The natural ease of the transition speaks volumes of the fluidity waiting to be found between these phenomenal musicians. The drums are still just not quite doing it for me but in his solo, he picks it up and his talent pokes its head from beneath the parapet, and from then on, he works well.

‘Scrap Iron’ is a slow blues and the guitar has the sound man, just not the wherewithal and arrogance that a blues guitar needs. Fox comes in on the tenor with a low ebbing sound that inevitably prompts a fantastic solo; and sure enough it’s my favourite solo of the night ‘cos its fluid, and enriched, and deep and earnest. Following that highlight: here’s me thinking the flugelhorn player playing trumpet has gone back into his shell but the sound he’s now playing is blowing my mind and it’s unreal. That’s my favourite solo of the night. As I sit here at my laptop writing this up, I can’t help but pull an obscure reference and analogy, therein feeling as though Williams is like the William S. Burroughs of the Beat generation in his horn-rimmed glasses, ‘cos he has that unique, intelligent and inspired means of playing the trumpet I never conceived of, let alone witnessed. Obviously assuming that he hasn’t invented such tricks, his vigorous approach, so conterminous to his style and sound, just sits so well for me. And then, yet again, Dan comes in on the lead alto with a flawless sound, really infectious, and I have to stop and consider whether I have once more discovered my favourite solo. Ironically enough, it was at this point that I damned myself for agreeing to write a review for this and had just spent a fiver, a bargain for this btw, to come and watch, ‘cos this song, in particular, is just banging.

And finally, ‘Rotary.’ A much faster song than the fantastical previous weary blues cover but yet another backdrop for Dan to smash his solo, ‘cos he’s taking this one for a run with another beautiful sound that one just can’t ignore. The downpour of some of his notes is really quite something and his progression through the solo is more than noteworthy. Up comes the horn-rimmed glasses clad flugelhorn player playing the trumpet and its only now that I must admit he’s pretty damn good. Perhaps he’s actually a trumpeter and a flugelhorn player on the side, or maybe both. But he’s gotta favour one and at this point I’m happy to concede that only my words will acquiesce the truth if and when he reads this. Whilst the two saxophones have been incredible, and Dan on the alto especially, Williams and his trumpet are just phenomenal. The drums are still a little too loud but are getting there and I don’t hesitate to suggest that it’s merely a lack of practice as a septet that begets this issue, not in any way his talent as a drummer.

All in all, I reckon the seventeen-year-old clueless me would have quickly forgotten about the damn Chelsea match, which we bottled btw, and that, in such egotistical fashion, speaks volumes of the talent of these musicians. The saxophonists were solid throughout the two sets and Dan is a remarkable leader. The trumpet solos were exceptional. The bass held firm and the guitar was sonically impressive but lacked in needed confidence. Morris on the trombone was very quiet and a lack of involvement is something that must be interrupted in the future. As for the drummer, too loud and off time at points, he ought not be left out to dry too soon, for his obvious talent I feel is merely in need of a little practice and refinement. All is well that ends well. Whilst the connection between the musicians may have been a tad absent, there were signs of its actuality and it will most certainly come over time.

It would not in the least bit surprise me if I find myself sat back in that OAP chair a few months from now forgetting about Chelsea losing yet another match. I hope I get the opportunity to review this septet of great musicians again.

Images by clickrbait 

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