The Spotted Dog, Digbeth, Birmingham
I have a very good friend with wide taste in music who has always had difficulty with the processional soloing over a rhythm section that is the basis of so much jazz. It’s not something that particularly bothers me but, just as one can hear through someone else’s ears (well, sort of), I am always acutely aware of the downsides to this type of jazz when I am in his company listening to bands which have come together with little rehearsal doing that regular thing of jamming on a standard.
I wish he could have been with me at The Spotted Dog on Tuesday evening. There he would have heard a deeply rewarding evening of original jazz music with remarkably few extended solos. Those there were included outstanding improvisations from Percy Pursglove (in both bands) and Chris Young (specifically in A Moveable Feast), but for the most part both these groups eschewed individual solos in favour of group arrangements and improvisations. And they were both excellent.
Guitarist Ben Lee sat facing his “double band” – to his left were trumpeter Pursglove and trombonist Richard Foote, David Ferris at the organ and Euan Palmer on drums; to his right were Chris Young on alto saxophone, Robbie Fearon on tenor, Tom Moore on electric bass and Jonathan Silk on drums. They played a continuous suite of pieces, each segueing into the next with quiet moments which mostly concentrated on one instrument.
The States 2.0 band began their set as a kind of Jekyll and Hyde, the good Dr J on the left playing ordered, almost serene melody while the evil Mr H on the right, led by Lee, added discordant and noisy disruption. At times during the set they united in a folksy, atmospheric Americana-like ballad, full of rich harmony and open-skied flow; at others they built funky, greasy grooves, Ferris or Lee setting the pattern down, Palmer and Silk stoking the fires and the horns chattering above. And sometimes they added free improvisations conducted with a pointed finger from the band leader. Lee added a touch of John Scofield mimicry at one moment, and was particularly fine weaving a gorgeous solo through the ballad.
If Ben Lee’s inspiration comes from the U.S. from the Midwestern plains right down to New Orleans (this is a complete assumption on my part based on what it sounded like – for all I know Ben’s imagination had been fired by the derelict industrial wastelands of Scunthorpe), pianist Mark Pringle’s A Moveable Feast has Paris as its setting and stimulus (and this is not at all an assumption, for Mark explains it all).
Again, the band size is generous: four horns (Young, Pursglove, Dan Searjeant and Alicia Gardener-Trejo), a string quartet (Christine Cornwell, Sarah Farmer, Megan Jowett, Lucy French) and a four-piece rhythm section (Pringle, Lee, James Banner and Palmer). It gives Pringle a kind of jazz chamber orchestra and he uses it hugely inventively and with a thoroughly original sound and style. I was reminded a little of the harmonies of Benjamin Britten in the bright, slightly brittle effects he achieves with the high horns and strings, but this band can get funky too in an arty kind of way, and bass clarinet and cello broaden the bottom end a treat. For a slow-build ensemble piece of depth tinged with danger The Writer (its inspiration is the deep and dangerously-tinged Ernest Hemingway) is a triumph of composition and arrangement.
Chris Young’s solo on Hasha’s Theme was not only a remarkable bit of spontaneous music making but also indicative of how Pringle’s music demands a particular kind of improvisation, another thing which I think sets this kind of more arranged music apart from the processional-standard-soloing kind – in the latter the player is keener, perhaps even beholden, to conveying their unfiltered jazz character, while in the former the improviser is much more conscious of the composer/arranger’s viewpoint as well, and must come up with a kind of synthesis.
The Moveable Feast music was a fascinating joy, and then Pringle set a little witty postscript to it with a quite brilliant arrangement of Duke Ellington and Barney Bigard’s Mood Indigo. Again, aside from a substantial Pursglove solo, mainly an ensemble piece, but beautifully done, with Gardener-Trejo crucial on bass clarinet and bari. It accentuated the fact that Mark Pringle has established an immediately identifiable and original musical soundscape, even when the original tune is so well-known.
Both bands should be commended, too, for the wide range of dynamics used – sure the finer points of the Feast’s quietly-plucked strings and wheezy brass breathes were slightly compromised by the late-evening chat at the other end of the room, but full marks for sticking with the subtlety.
Mark Pringle’s A Moveable Feast is, I’m jolly pleased to say, available on CD – this was a preview gig as the album is officially released by Stoney Lane Records on 18 September. I wish Ben Lee’s States 2.0 was similarly available – there’s a hope for the future…
- For future Spotted Dog Tuesdays look at the September Diary here and follow @Spottedogjazz on Twitter.
- Mark Pringle will be playing some of A Moveable Feast, plus other things with his Trio – James Banner on bass and Euan Palmer on drums, tomorrow for Birmingham Jazz. More here.
- And look out for a Q&A with Mark on this site very soon!
Categories: Live review