Harry Allen Septet

Review by Peter Vacher

EFG London Jazz Festival
606 Club, London

Having observed the much-vaunted AZIZA quartet sacrifice valid ideas for interminable noise and creativity for mindless repetition just a night before at Cadogan Hall, it was both a mercy and a joy to contemplate the aural delights and the musicality of US tenor-saxophonist Harry Allen’s septet at the 606, this part of their London Jazz Festival season. For Allen, presently on tour here, this was a one-off opportunity to recreate his recent four-saxophones recording project but with a British cast. Well, almost, for the septet also included the Italian pianist Andrea Pozza, a man whose nimble touch can make you think of Bill Evans even as he moves into fast-moving swing territory.

Harry Allen

Harry Allen

Allen and bassist Simon Woolf, his co-partner on this tour, had assembled a formidable front-line for the gig adding two more tenors, Dave O’Higgins and Ollie Wilby, plus the young baritone ace Richard Shepherd, the whole ensemble powered by an on-form Steve Brown at the drums. Reasonably enough given this instrumentation – no lead alto, you’ll notice – Allen and company roared into Al Cohn’s arrangement of the timeless Four Brothers theme as their starter, note-perfect, execution tip-top, all for one and one for all, each man soloing in turn.

Allen likes to enter a solo with a clipped phrase or two, set quite high, before knuckling down to an extended improvisation, somewhat on the lines of Stan Getz, whereas O’Higgins, who’s quick to pick up the preceding soloist’s final phrase and move it on, makes his mark in post-bop fashion, revealing a confident attack with a fund of ideas and a neat concision as he ends a solo. Wilby’s is an altogether more spacious approach, deep-toned and husky, harking back to mid-period Hawkins with a suggestion of Lester Young in the oblique points of entry and exit, while the accomplished Shepherd tends to stay within the boundaries set by Gerry Mulligan.

It was this fascinating contrast between styles and outcomes that made the whole evening so rewarding, the front-liners and Pozza playing pass-the-parcel ever more valiantly with Allen’s miscellany of well-arranged themes. He paced things well, moving tempos around, deploying a number of his own originals, like the zig-zag So There, before starting off an extempore version of Body and Soul to see where it might go, and then having the team play How Are Things in Glocca Mora as a slow-burning chorale and making What A Little Moonlight Can Do into a romp.

A packed 606 loved every moment, staying rapt and attentive over two long sets, this very special room the perfect setting for close-to music-making as creative as this. As Dave O’Higgins said, wistfully, at the end: “Wouldn’t it be great to tour this band?” Yes, it would, so how about it, Arts Council?

© Peter Vacher / 17 November 2016   

Categories: Live review

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