Julian Argüelles’ Tetra

The Spotted Dog, Birmingham UK

This was the second date of saxophonist Julian Argüelles‘ current UK tour leading his young band, and was a real treat, not only for the packed audience but for the regular Tuesday night sessions at this Digbeth pub.

In an ideal world this band would have been playing in a better-equipped venue with a grand piano for Kit Downes, a more generous stage area and more seating for the audience. It would have been a ticketed concert and there would have been a bit more hush at the back in the second set to do full justice to the quieter numbers. But jazz facilities and venue opportunities in Birmingham are not ideal, and so some adjustments have to be made. Jazzlines, the city’s Arts Council supported jazz promoter, assisted to meet the band’s fee, and The Dog’s infrastructural shortcomings were partially compensated for – as they always are – by the presence of some discerning listeners (a lot of them jazz students) and a warm and welcoming atmosphere.

But what about the actual music? The band was playing mostly tunes from their new CD, also called Tetra. The first three pieces – Hugger Mugger, Yada Yada and Hurley Burley – matched the recording and were played without interruption, bass and drum sections from Sam Lasserson and James Maddren providing neat links.

Julian Argüelles

Julian Argüelles

An older piece which shared that wordplay theme, Lardy Dardy, featured an enthralling piano intro and a lovely segue from Argüelles’ solo on soprano to Downes’ on piano, the soprano slipping into a quiet line of musical commentary in parallel to the piano for a while. The first set ended with a dedication to South African pianist Chris McGregor call Mr Mc. It featured a joyous tenor solo filled with rolling melody and energy, a combination which for me called to mind Sonny Rollins.

The second set opened with a really old tune, Phaedrus, first heard on the 1990 album of the same name with John Taylor on piano. It might be 25 years old but it shows how Argüelles had already found his distinctive character as a composer and wears its age with panache. Hocus Pocus and the Northern Spanish folksong-linked Asturias bookended Wilderness Lane (named after the road in Great Barr where Julian went to school) and Triality was the full-force finale.

The encore was another SA jazz-linked dedication, Peace For D – it had a great cowbell-driven groove and a superb group ending with all four players giving everything at once.

The pleasures of hearing this band up close and very live are manifold – they include Downes’ unerring dedication to seek out new and original paths through the music, his and Argüelles way of “dancing together” through a tune, bassist Lasserson’s energetic and spot-on pulse as well as lightning fast solos, and Maddren’s artful push and pull of the rhythms. Primarily, though, the joy comes from hearing and seeing Julian Argüelles not only soaring and swooping in long, long arcs through such inventive saxophone melodies but also giving his lines this extraordinary inner swell and ebb of energy, as evidenced by the bloat and suck of his cheeks, the duck and stretch of his whole body at the height of a solo. He gives us limitless variations of breath within breaths, rhythm within rhythms, song within songs.

For the ability simultaneously to deliver great subtlety of musical character with both emotional energy and intellectual power, he is one of the very best we have.

  • For an interview with Julian Argüelles go here.
  • For a review of the album and information about other dates in the Tetra tour go here.

Categories: Live review

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2 replies

  1. Many would agree with Peter’s disparaging comments about the Spotted Dog as a venue, but is this fair or helpful? I’m genuinely undecided on this. We shouldn’t be content with only back rooms of pubs and no bespoke public venue for jazz in a city as vast and dynamic as Birmingham. The music and artistic activity does deserve better. But I believe Arg chose this venue over others in town; presumably over CBSO Centre, the mac and Conservatoire concert venues. He’s played at the Dog before and presumably loved the vibe sufficiently to hustle a gig there for himself. Brilliant. All credit to Jonathan Silk and Richard Foote. I think to open a review of what was evidently a great musical happening with such negativity about the venue is a shame and a bit of a kick in the Jacksons to the essentially volunteer-altruistic-jazz-loving-promoters, but I applaud the pressure this creates to keep the paucity of resources for jazz, relative to other art forms, firmly on the agenda.
    I’m always trying to spread the good news about the Conservatoire’s new building. It’s going to have a bespoke jazz space! This will be a first for any UK Conservatoire and will finally give Birmingham a specifically designed venue for jazz. It will have a grand piano, good seating for the audience, ticketing, and “a bit more hush in the second set.” All that Peter dreams of. The primary thought for acoustics will be for jazz, not a cavernous reverberance preferred by symphony orchestras. (CBSO Centre). It won’t be a stroll- up passing-trade venue either (Bramall Hall).
    Of course we at the Conservatoire are going to do our best to make sure that this venue will be a great success and a major contribution to jazz in the City, but I’m certain venues like the Spotted Dog will still be incredibly important to the scene. Silk and Foote have made this Tuesday night such a success that other jazz promoters schedule against them at their peril, so perhaps Peter is in a minority for bemoaning the facilities.

  2. Methinks the Conservatoire’s Head of Jazz doth protest too much at my review in order to publicise his own future jazz club (and to offer some gratuitous sideswipes at Jazzlines’ venues along the way).
    My comments were a lot more moderate than he suggests. I love the atmosphere of The Spotted Dog and have said so more than once – in this review and previously. There is something about the place which inspires great performances, and we got one on Tuesday night. I remain hugely supportive of what Jonathan Silk and Richard Foote are doing with the regular Tuesday nights there, as I am of all “volunteer-altruistic-jazz-loving” activity, adjectives that I think regular readers will understand apply to this blog too.
    I’m sure I’ll love the acoustics and the facilities of the Conservatoire’s jazz club and will be hugely supportive of what happens there when it gets going. But true support for the jazz scene doesn’t come from just saying nice things about everything, whether or not they are deserved; it is also about fulfilling one’s role, which in my case is that of journalist, commentator and critic. Jeremy Price has previously shown a sophisticated understanding of such roles and functions so I am mildly surprised by the general tenor of his comments and his descent into tabloid exaggeration. “A bit of a kick in the Jacksons”? Really?
    And just in case there is any confusion about this, I am the last person to want jazz to be played solely in chamber music settings with silence insisted upon and all that bollocks. There is room for everything from an informal, intimate space like The Spotted Dog to a packed and dancing back room like the one at The Sun At The Station, from a spacious seated venue like the CBSO Centre to an all-standing one like the Hare And Hounds, or even Symphony Hall when Birmingham can attract the right band for it (as on 19 November). I love every different type of venue but I am also aware that there is a particular art to matching venue and band, and when it’s right then both benefit. Tetra and The Dog worked – my review of the music surely confirms that – but only just.

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