Dan Nicholls’ Strobes

Parabola Arts Centre, Cheltenham Jazz Festival

What I like most about keyboardist Dan Nicholls is the way he has developed a very distinctive, personal style of music that is so adaptable to different contexts and to new influences, many of them from other parts of the world.

I had last heard him with his African-inspired Point X, the result of a Jazzlines Fellowship. Here similar Nicholls building blocks were in evidence – the knotty little repeated keyboard phrase for example, the overlaying of minimalist patterns building into improvisation – but the results were remarkably altered.

Matt Calvert – on guitar, keyboards and electronics – is common to both bands and he and Nicholls have clearly developed a strong working partnership and a sure instinct for where the other is going to go next. The big change with Strobes is the crucial middle man on the stage between them.

Dave Smith has always been one of my favourite drummers, and has made the African trip himself, courtesy of a Cheltenham Jazz Festival extension of his Outhouse band to become Outhouse Ruhabi. However, here he was using other kinds of inspiration: club grooves, heavy rock perhaps, anything where the drums are hit very hard indeed. But then he would make the drums whisper as well.

This was an hour and a quarter of richly varying moods, and of highly original new music. I particularly enjoyed Horn OK Please, inspired by a very recent trip to Mumbai and evidence that Dan’s music moves and develops at astonishing speed.

The opening piece and the two closing ones were tightest in concept and felt like they had been stripped of any flab. Some in the middle of the set felt like they could be placed on a similar diet. Maybe for Nicholls’ concept to work it sometimes needs a period of setting up between him and Calvert, but this can feel a little like waiting for the real stuff to happen. I’m not suggesting he take a leaf out of Naked City-era John Zorn’s book and turn all his tunes into two-minute speed metal thrashes, but there is surely some middle ground.

Also the images, many by New York artist Stephen Byram and triggered by Dan, are effective but they seem to stop and start without much logic (well, not that I could discern at any rate).

But these are minor quibbles – what is most important is that risk is embraced and musical courage shown – and Dan Nicholls does both.

Categories: Live review

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