It is probably a very good thing that a young Iain Ballamy chose not to enroll in Leeds University's alarmingly titled "Jazz and Light Music course in 1980, opting instead for the hands-on education earned by gigging in the intimate jazz clubs of London.
A quarter of a century of progressive music-making later, through Loose Tubes, Earthworks and a variety of challenging musical environments characterized by their spirit of adventure, Ballamy returns to his roots on More Jazz, serving up a straight-ahead set surprising (by Ballamy's standards) for its orthodoxy.
Reworkings of "All the Things You Are, "I Got Rhythm and "Stella by Starlight are a revisiting of the music on which Ballamy cut his teeth. Having played such standards hundreds of times it is perhaps understandable that the timeless voices of the past cut through Ballamy's own at times. On "My Way it is the story-telling voice of Sonny Rollins which comes through; on "Tribute to Alan Skidmore's Tribute to John Coltrane it is Coltrane's, although this has as much to do with pianist Gareth Williams, whose playing, always passionate, nevertheless only succeeds here in mirroring McCoy Tyner. A heartfelt tribute to his mentors sure, but at times it is difficult to know if Ballamy is playing homage to them or they are playing him.
On the self-penned tunes like "Convolution, with its bossa nova swing and a more personal bluesy solo from Williams; and on "Recedar and "The Worm, the quartet crosses the bridge between past and present. Williams, Orlando le Fleming on bass and long-time Ballamy associate Martin France on drums provide an impressive and propulsive frame in which Ballamy's tenor roams feely and daringly, reminding us of his rightful place in the pantheon of great British saxophonists alongside John Dankworth, Ronnie Scott, Tubby Hayes, Evan Parker, Alan Skidmore and John Surman.
A note on the wonderful packaging of this CD, whose design and photography was executed by Dave McKean. In one photo, Ballamy and son Finlay are staring in awe into the bell of a saxophone, perhaps looking at the past, as though this music called jazz has a life of its own, and Iain Ballamy and other self-confessed jazz anoraks are merely conduits for its voice to be spoken and heard. The cover photo, in contrast, shows a fierce-looking Ballamy, saxophone raised defiantly above his head, guardian and warrior at the same time, and that, it seems, is the most fitting comment on Ballamy's playing on More Jazz.
Personnel: Iain Ballamy: tenor saxophone; Gareth Wiliams: piano; Orlando Le Fleming: double bass; Martin France: drums.