7 June 2012

Pitching the alto

I asked Matt Handel if he’d transcribed the performances he played at his history of alto sax retrospective, but he said he hadn’t. It fitted with Luke’s comment that Matt has a memory. I was educated and enlightened by Matt’s interpretations of favourite works by favourite alto players. This was not new music or original. It was an exploration of different styles and different players, and Matt’s renditions were profoundly diverse and indicated his immersion in these key players. Who were they? The first was a delightful, purely lyrical rendition of Johnny Hodges playing In a mellow tone. It was so beautiful, like language, unforced but with occasional devastating runs that fell for the horn. I noticed this with several other players – a willingness to enjoy melody, playing slowly, delight in intervals, but also the skills to pull of lengthy and emotive flourishes. But that’s what solo development is about. Phil Woods’ Strollin’ with Pam was more recent, still in the mainstream but street-wise and abandoned. Charlie Parker took us back the birth of the modern with ‘40s bop. Matt’s Eric Dolphy was from Berlin in 1961 and was tortured and blues-influenced and generously dissonance with every note plumbing depths of spirit. I think this was my most striking amongst a varied bunch. Next was Cannonball Adderley with Spectacular from 1957, a superb shower of frolicking consonance. After the break was Art Pepper’s Ophelia from 1957, rooted but with an easy readiness to depart from the ordinary. Then Kenny Garrett’s [Woody] Shaw, all Arabic scales in constant lines. The second set also had some local flavour. Matt studied with Tony Gorman for several years so his Spice Island was authentic: all mesmeric and dreamy with a melody that discombobulated my ears when I expected a tone and got a semitone. Matt’s Tony-solo was stunning too: quietly interpretative but then rabidly released. Next was a heavy, slow, rock tribute to Arthur Blythe, with Matt playing Joey Barrons’ interpretation of AB’s Little boy. Then Australia again with Bernie McGann’s Acacia from the Last Straw in 1995 and a final Cherokee. I was surprised by just how truly stylistically different each tune was in Matt’s playing. This is not easy and it was a truly impressive display.

The rest of the band were no slouches, either. I felt Andy was most comfortable on the impressionistic styles where his contemporary classical interests are evident. His descending chromatic chords were an eye opener on the Dolphy piece, and his solos were particularly vivid in these styles. Rohan’s bass solos were phrased like a sax with nice bebop triplets, and that’s high praise for our bulky instrument. And I can never be uncomfortable with Mark’s drums that just spell out the highpoints of 50’s post-bop era. James O’Donnell, a student of Mark’s, sat in for the final Cherokee and was all concentration with a driving ride.

At the end, I felt this was as good as it gets. Great music of a great jazz era, played with skills and an awareness that’s both catholic and informed. What a pleasurable gig and an education too. Matt Handel (alto) led a quartet with Andy Butler (piano), Rohan Dasica (bass) and Mark Sutton (drums). James O’Donnell (drums) replaced Mark for the final tune.

  • Cyberhalides Jazz Photos by Brian Stewart
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