Courtney Pine is not so much a musician as an experience. The event was the opening night of the Ipswich Music Festival and the venue was the grand hall of Ipswich High School-grander than most school halls granted but not the sort of venue Pine would normally be associated with. The last time I saw him in action was just over a year ago at Snape Music Festival, where he gave an unforgettable performance, interspersing free playing with well known standards, as well as music from his last album, Europa (Distin-E, 2011). Pine was at his most indulgent, adapting the mood and program to suit the crowd, introducing many skeptics to jazz by taking standards and tweaking them just enough to make them fun, before returning to the tune. Since then, Snape has offered more jazz of all genres to its audiences.
I wondered what the festival goers would make of Pine. As I looked around there was the mayor, aldermen, councilors and various officials-well it was opening night and Pine was headlining. I asked the county councilor next to me if he knew Pine's music, and he said he did not but liked Humphrey Lyttleton and traditional jazz.
Pine appeared onstage in a wondrous costume and headband. He greeted the audience and made a few jokes about playing in a school hall. He explained his tour was titled Europa and largely based around his album of the same name. He began to play.
First, Pine restricted himself to playing a per musica'-reading off a score and only intermittently straying from the tune. He introduced his band-violist Amanda Drummond, pianist Zoe Rahman
. Pine began "Da Kom Fra Nord" before Drummond took the tune and played with it. Her playing was incredible; she made her viola laugh, sing, chirrup and pop; she displayed the full, lustrous range of the instrument. The viola brought depth to the music and offered rich, resonant undertones. She also let it rip in the most unseemly fashion, but more happened in that direction as the set progressed.
Pine is a great raconteur, and gets better each time I see him. He chatted to the audience, tried a few jokes and got the measure of them. There was a definite glint in Pine's eyes tonight.
The set progressed with more songs from the album-a diverse range with darker, haunting tunes like "Da Kom Fra Nord" and "Deuteronomy," and light, haunting airs such as "The First Flower of Spring" and "Druids Lyre." "Greek Fire" offered the chance of solos for nearly all the band including Taylor, who showed just what a bass could do in terms of range as he plucked, bowed and used the deep-throated echoes of the instrument, as well as including high, piercing notes at the top of the instrument's range.
It was impossible to pick any one of the musicians as being better than the others. Suffice to say, Pine has chosen well and his group offered solos and support to Pine in the way that only a finely tuned band could. This was clearly the result of hard work, excellent musicianship and a love for the kind of jazz the band played, which was hard to place in any genre as it transcended several and yet sat firmly into none. Pine could relax, knowing the band would cover, pick up and support him and each other. After each solo, Pine congratulated the player with a fist-to-fist touch, giving the players center stage during their solos by moving off to the wings.
Pine felt just a little reserved and, on occasion, he could no longer stay within the constraints of the tune. He closed his eyes and soared free.
The interval followed and the bar filled. Drinks in hand to steady their nerves, people returned to their seats. My councilor friend said he felt drawn to the music, amazed but also a bit confused as to exactly what Pine was doing with the tunes.
The second half was even better than the first. Pine did play tunes but he also played with them, toying with the riffs, tossing them like feathers to the wind and seeing what he could make of them-delicious. When Pine is into the music he nods back and forwards like a man possessed. And maybe this is because the notes he squeezes from his bass clarinet sometimes have such an impossible and ethereal quality that they might have been given a hand by some mischievous spirit or demon.
Each musician's solo held the audience spellbound, from mandolin to drums. One melody morphed into an explosion of throbbing drum 'n' bass at one point; a nod to the modern world, the school's teenagers in the audience, and Pine's relative youth, it then turned back to the original tune as if by magic.