3 May 2012

What maturity means

Alex Boneham said to me it’s like the music you learn at the Con but then seldom perform in public.

Andrew Dickeson led a quintet at the Gods and it was furious post-bop and beautiful ballads and down-home blues and it’s something any modern jazzer loves. But it was also the sheer skills that hit me this night. The very first bar had me in awe. It was sharp, precise, relaxed but laden with energy that was always about to explode. It’s a great skill: precision and power that sits and promises, even seduces, and clearly has energy sitting in reserve, even while the notes are scrolling by in sixteenths and the ideas are flowing freely. Then I heard a line from Warwick that I thought just sat so right and I realised there are perfect lines for certain combinations of chords and melodies and tempos. It’s no surprise, really, given the importance of transcription for advanced students, but it’s not obvious when we talk of improvisation as the basis for jazz. And then I noticed these perfect snippets all over the place. Warwick has a library of them. James and Steve had plenty of their own. The blues is replete with them. We call some of them “licks”, but there are others, too: perfect statements that ring true to our unconscious listening history. The music was not pretentious, not original compositions although there were original arrangements. They were reading, but you might not know it from the ease of the unison melodies. The band played standards but they were not common ones: Here and now, Never let me go, Ill wind, I’m a weaver of dreams, Embraceable you was common. Some tunes were features for the frontliners: Billie Holiday’s I’ll be seeing you was a feature for Warwick so James sat out; Embraceable you was a guitar trio with James. There were some blues: Freddie Hubbard’s Byrd-like and Carl Perkin’s hard-bopper Carl’s blues. The song is you was arranged by Andrew with odd staccatos that challenged the readers. It surfaced a few chuckles from Alex and smiles from Steve. The old hands up front were mostly phlegmatic but even they looked around with discrete smiles at times. There were some devastating solos from the masters. James reached to the top frets and was mostly above the first octave, but could fall away with clanking frets right down the neck, all within lines of furious speed and unending length. Warwick also played those long, fast lines, although I thought more scalar against James’ pentatonics. I remember his plays on scales where he started with, say, a third that then fell away, then a fourth, then a fifth, and so on. Get an idea and execute it, exercise-like, maintain it, explore and twist it. I was drooling at how much playing and practice was on display. Andrew was leading from the drum stool with a distant grin of concentration. He’s mainstream to my ears and so precise, driving from behind or laying solos that spell out melody in rolls and rudiments, quite loud and spot on. I heard Steve as less explosive than Warwick or James, playing tenor-style sustained eighth notes with rising and falling lines and neat bop-triplet fills in solos and pianistic colour in comping. Alex is a young master to my ears. His intonation was impressive despite (maybe because of) squirming like Charlie Haden, his solos were thoughtful - slow and intervallic or minimalistic and arpeggiated - and his tone was firm and edgy and to die for.

So, what to make of all this? Mature and classy and unpretentious but with some devastating, world-class skills. More than I could have hoped for. Andrew Dickeson (drums) led a quintet with Warwick Alder (trumpet), James Muller (guitar), Steve Barry (piano) and Alex Boneham (bass) at the Gods.

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