Andrew Bain’s Player Piano

CBSO Centre, Birmingham UK
18-10-2015

I’ve heard drummer Andrew Bain many times in other people’s bands but never as a leader. And what a band to lead! On piano was Gwilym Simcock, on bass Steve Watts, on tenor and soprano saxophones Iain Dixon, and on guitar Mike Walker.

The band name might come from the U.S. author Kurt Vonnegut, but for Bain (a Scot) the concept on this occasion is thoroughly British: musicians from this country playing music composed by Brits, both from within the band but, perhaps more importantly, from the composers who have come to define the very special kind of jazz the UK makes. Within such simplicity of vision lie manifold treats, as we were to hear.

They opened with Mike Walker’s Clockmaker, a favourite of mine which Mike has previously contributed to the book of various ensembles, including, of course, The Impossible Gentlemen. This performance was less extensive, a kind of settling down piece for the band and a succinct introduction for the audience.

Dave Holland’s Processional followed with the first of a number of fine solos from Iain Dixon, and Walker sounding lovely too – he consistently used a rounder, fatter, more “classic” jazz tone for this band, perhaps to set it aside from the Gentlemen, or to blend more satisfactorily with the saxophone?

Two linked tunes followed from Kenny Wheeler – yes, he was Canadian by birth but, as Bain commented, we think of him as ours: the opening of The Sweet Time Suite and Kind Folk. In the latter Gwilym Simcock built his piano solo up to a sustained state of what I can only describe as ecstatic reverie (I know it sounds contradictory, but that’s music for you…) which was absolutely magical. It was  one of those rare and extraordinary occurrences – I call them “lift off moments” – that jazz musicians are always striving to reach but, such are the vagaries of the circumstances, the difficulties of the task, the fickleness of the muse, rarely achieve.

Iain Dixon at the Barton Arms © John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk

Iain Dixon (Photo © John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk)

When it happens it changes everything that follows, the whole band soars to another level, and they fly higher together. And that’s what happened on Sunday in the CBSO Centre – Dixon took up where Simcock left off, and passed the baton on to Walker. And they flew higher and higher. I get chills just recalling it!

Walker’s poignant Wallander’s Last Stand – with a gorgeously realised slow fall down the piano keyboard at its conclusion – followed and the first set ended with another Wheeler tune, Mark Time. Bain mentioned Walker and Dixon as “the dream team” and it’s true. There is a particular warmth which emanates from the stage when these two old friends are together. In fact, this band contains multiple dream teams: Simcock and Walker from the Gentlemen, Walker and Watts from Printmakers, and Walker and Dixon from, well, Walker and Dixon.

The buzz at interval was palpable, the conversations enthusiastic, the heads shaking in mutual agreement and delight – it’s so immediately rewarding, the effect of a great band playing great music.

The second set opened with an original from the band leader – though if he mentioned its title I missed it – and Simcock spurring a second lift-off. A quick word about Andrew Bain’s drumming. Not only is he a beautiful player, nuanced, subtle, graceful and so, so supportive, but also capable of achieving almost orchestral breadth with his kit. On top of that he makes his drums just sound so bloody good!

John Taylor’s Ambleside Days had Dixon and Walker sharing the melody and fine guitar and piano solos, and was followed by Ralph Towner’s Celeste – yep, another non-Brit, but Bain justified its inclusion because the version by Norma Winstone is a favourite – with the Simcock touch particularly affecting in a solo intro.

The grand finale came with Walker’s Laugh Lines, with its composer turning in a solo of such building excitement he was practically levitating by the end.

The encore was Cole Porter’s Everything I Love, a sentiment that echoed perfectly what I felt about this evening. Sure, you might say: so what, isn’t this Impossible Gentlemen with an added saxophone? Or Printmakers without a vocalist? And haven’t we heard these tunes plenty of times before? Well, I consider this concert something of a calling card from Andrew Bain – he was presenting the British angle this time around, and doing it with great class; next up in 2016 he will be leading a US-angled band which will include Michael Janisch on bass and Jon Irabagon on saxophone. I think as his concept develops the common “Bain factor” will become ever stronger.

Two final points, one general and one very personal.

Isn’t it great to see one of our crucial educators at Birmingham Conservatoire out on the bandstand, leading a band, walking the walking to back up all the talking the talk he must do back in the classroom?

And a confession: as a tenor player myself (a not very good one, I hasten to add) I often listen to the great players and wonder who I would most like to sound and play like – in my dreams. And every time I hear Iain Dixon (which is not often enough) I know: he’s the one!

(Apologies for the overlong review – sometimes the enthusiasm gets the better of me…)


Categories: Live review

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  1. Hope embodied in the sound of drums – thejazzbreakfast

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