Paul Dunmall at 60

mac, Birmingham UK

The saxophonist turned 60 earlier this year and Jazzlines had commissioned him to write a suite to be performed here and then at a couple more venues round the land. It’s called Life In Four Parts, Paul Dunmall wrote it for sextet and it filled the second half of this celebratory evening.

I’ve previously heard Dunmall mainly in a free jazz context, rather than as a premeditated composer, though, as this evening made clear, the line between written jazz using certain conventions and music freely improvised in the moment is becoming increasingly blurred.

The suite’s themes sounded to me very much like extensions of Dunmall’s improvisatory style – short phrases of five or six notes repeated in different places on the instrument, building a framework though not necessarily a perceivable “tune”. The music was wide in its range, and I was particularly drawn to the way it incorporated free playing into a structure and written ensemble material.

The band was similarly, an amalgam, comprising a couple of Birmingham players equally adept in free playing, drummer Mark Sanders and pianist Mike Hurley, together with three Birmingham players whose regular area of playing is not necessarily the free scene, Chris Mapp on double bass, Percy Pursglove on trumpet and Mike Fletcher on alto saxophone and other things.

It all began with the horns playing a three-part harmony on one of Dunmall’s themes, and, amazingly, then developed into a strong walking bass section for Fletcher’s first solo, along with a driving beat from Sanders and Hurley. It even had the customary non-soloing horns enter to play a supporting riff behind the solo. So far, so “conventional”.

With his first tenor solo we were in more familiar Dunmall territory, the energy level raising further and Mapp, Sanders and Hurley giving the leader a really intense push, before Pursglove tackled the high places with squeezed smears and squeaks over a more stately beat.

Chris Mapp was on spectacular form throughout, integrating arco playing, percussion hits and pedal-enhancement into a solo of great focus and intense power. Hurley rose to similarly impassioned heights in his solo later on.

The richness of the sound exploration included birdcalls from the twin flutes of Dunmall and Fletcher, along with the muted trumpet of Pursglove; a twin bagpipe section (Dunmall and Fletcher) with similarly high, fluttering, chattering tones; bowed cymbal screams from Sanders; and a gigantic, ever-growing, rumbling, sonorous thunder from Hurley on Nord keyboard, Mapp on amplified bass, and Sanders and Pursglove on large, standing bass drums.

Overall, the piece seemed like a fair reflection of its composer: serious, weighty, with a deep but controlled passion. Music of the elements, of the earth, of a wilder, darker past even? I was reminded, for some reason of the poem Beowulf.

The first half had leaned more strongly towards free jazz, though even here the music stands were in evidence. With Dunmall in a trio were Nick Jurd on double bass and Jim Bashford on drums, with an old friend of Dunmall’s, Bruce Coates, in on soprano for one number. This was stirring stuff, all well executed and well shared.

Dunmall might have been in the spotlight for the evening but he was characteristically and brusquely humble, generously deflecting the final applause to the younger players he had gathered round him for this special event, and who had risen so strongly to the occasion.

Paul Dunmall at 60 can be heard at The Vortex in London tomorrow night (more here), and at the Cluny 2 in Newcastle on Tuesday (more here), and Life In Four Parts, together with a Gail Brand interview with Paul Dunmall, will be broadcast on Jazz On 3, BBC Radio 3, on Monday 4 November (more here).



Categories: Live review

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1 reply

  1. What a shame, Peter. Yet again, you simply didn’t get it.

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